Q&A: Legal aid changes

In an effort to cut the £2bn annual legal aid bill in England and Wales by £350m a year, there are now fewer types of civil proceedings for which people can get funding. The changes came in on 1st April 2013.

What is legal aid?

Legal aid helps with the costs of legal advice for people who cannot afford it. It funds solicitors and agencies to advise people on their legal problems, such as eviction, debt and family breakdown and, if necessary, represent people in court.

What has changed?

The government says it is targeting resources at those most in need with the changes in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which came into force from April 2013. It reverses the position where legal aid has been available for all civil cases except those specifically excluded by the Access to Justice Act 1999. The new act removes some types of case from the scope of legal aid funding, and says other cases will only qualify when they meet certain criteria.

Which cases no longer qualify?

The government has removedfunding from entire areas of civil law. They include:

  • Private family law, such as divorce and custody battles
  • Personal injury and some clinical negligence cases
  • Some employment and education law
  • Immigration where the person is not detained
  • Some debt, housing and benefit issues

What cases will continue to be funded?

They include:

  • Family law cases involving domestic violence, forced marriage or child abduction
  • Mental health cases
  • All asylum cases
  • Debt and housing matters where someone's home is at immediate risk

What options are available to people ineligible for legal aid?

Many people will have to pay privately for advice or use no-win, no-fee lawyers, seek support from one of a number of charities that offer legal help, or represent themselves in trying to solve their disputes.

Was there opposition to the changes?

The parliamentary passage of the bill saw it defeated 14 times in the House of Lords, and ultimately passed by the narrowest of margins - a tied vote which means a government victory.

There are concerns that the changes will deny justice to the poorest in society. Labour's shadow justice minister Lord Bach said the justice system was based on "equality of law", and the new restrictions were "absolutely scandalous" for "attacking... the very poorest and the most disadvantaged".

President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, warned that people who felt they were being denied access to justice could end up "taking the law into their own hands". The changes could also end up costing the government more, he suggested, as increasing numbers of people representing themselves might "mean that court hearings will last longer, the burden on court staff and judges will increase".

What does the government say to that?

The Ministry of Justice says it considers legal aid an "essential part of the justice system, but can never lose sight of the fact it is paid for by taxpayers and resources are not limitless".

A spokesperson said: "Legal aid will continue to be provided to those who most need it, such as where domestic violence is involved, where life or liberty is at stake or people risk losing their home.

"But in cases like divorce, courts should more often be a last resort, not the first. Evidence shows that mediation is often more successful, cheaper and less acrimonious for all involved."

The department also argues there is little evidence to suggest that more people representing themselves will slow up the courts.

How else are costs being cut?

At present, anyone with assets worth less than £8,000 qualifies for legal aid - with those worth up to £3,000 paying nothing and others expected to make a contribution. There will also be a 10% cut in fees paid in civil and family cases.

What about legal aid for criminal cases?

Criminal defence makes up more than half of legal aid expenditure.

The government has previously announced measures to strengthen the Crown Court means-testing scheme, including the seizure of assets of convicted criminals to recoup the cost of a failed defence. This step can be taken from July 2013. Also this year, the government is consulting on proposed further changes, including the possibility of introducing price competition in the criminal legal aid market.