Legal aid schemes
Legal aid is help for people who can't afford to pay for legal advice or representation in court by a solicitor or barrister. There are three different schemes that pay legal aid for people needing legal advice and representation if a case goes to court.
Applying for legal aid
All applications for legal aid should be made by a solicitor. A solicitor can advise you if would qualify for legal aid when they know the circumstances in your case. If you don't have a solicitor, check the Law Society's list of solicitors.
Payment of legal aid
Legal aid is paid through three different schemes:
- advice and assistance
- civil legal aid
- criminal legal aid
Advice and assistance
Advice and assistance helps to pay for advice from a solicitor on any point of Northern Ireland law, for example trying to settle a dispute without going to court. It may also cover their solicitor representing them in court – this is ABWOR – “assistance by way of representation”.
Depending on your financial circumstances, you may have to pay something towards your advice and assistance in civil matters.
Advice and assistance covers different matters, so long as they are matters of Northern Ireland law and you qualify financially. This could include advice on
- disputes over children
- employment matters
- welfare issues such as housing
Your solicitor will decide if you meet the financial eligibility limits under the advice and assistance scheme.
Civil legal aid
Civil legal assistance helps people to get legal advice and representation in civil cases.
Civil legal aid may provide funding for a solicitor to put your case to the court. It covers the preparation work and hearing, providing funding for barristers, experts (most cases begin with advice and assistance and civil legal aid may be the next step, if necessary).
You might get civil legal aid in:
- divorce and other matters affecting family and children
- actions for compensation for injuries resulting from an accident or medical negligence
The Legal Services Agency grants civil legal aid. They use a financial eligibility test. You might need to pay something for the legal services you get.
Criminal legal aid
Criminal legal aid helps people charged with a criminal offence. They can get legal advice and representation.
Criminal legal aid can give funding if someone is under police investigation or facing criminal charges.
A person being interviewed by the police about criminal charges is entitled to free legal aid for police station advice. This scheme is not means tested. You don't need to pay anything for these legal services.
Green form scheme
A defendant’s solicitor may also be able to apply, on their behalf, for legal aid, advice and assistance, under the “Green Form” scheme, for initial consultations. The solicitor will assess a person’s income and decide their financial eligibility under the “Green Form” scheme.
If the charges go to to court, a solicitor can apply to the court for the grant of a criminal legal aid certificate. The decision to grant legal aid is taken by the court. Criminal legal aid is available for proceedings in the:
- magistrates' courts
- Crown Court
- Court of Appeal
Getting criminal legal aid
The granting of criminal legal aid by the court depends on:
- a means test, the defendant doesn't have enough income to pay for their defence
- a merits test, it's in the interests of justice the defendant gets legal aid
Before granting legal aid to the defendant, the court considers if:
- imprisonment is likely if the defendant is found guilty
- the defendant has an earlier suspended sentence which might be activated if they're found guilty of the present charge
- a loss of livelihood is likely if found guilty
- an important question of law is involved
- the defendant understands the proceedings
- cross-examination of expert witnesses is needed