Friday, 31 May 2013

Understanding the changes to Legal Aid


This Government has made drastic changes to Legal Aid and who qualifies for help. The new guidelines came into force on 1st April this year and for many people free legal help is no longer available. When I recently sought legal advice I was told I no longer qualified for Legal Aid and was given a breakdown of the likely costs instead. Needless to say the legal route is now closed for me and many people on a low income.

Read on to hear about the changes and what they mean.

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Even before the new rules around the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into place on 1st April 2013, the controversial changes wreaked havoc on the UK law sector. Just months before the deadline for the changes, unhappy couples across the country who had been thinking about divorce suddenly moved into separation proceedings, claiming their legal aid before it was too late, and overwhelming many law firms in the process. However, with the new rules now in effect, those that seem most likely to be most affected are people on low income.

While the government in the UK hopes that the new rules will help it to cut its expenses in the sector to £350 million a year, down from the massive £2 billion currently spent, this saving could be at the sacrifice of victims of crime who rely on subsidised legal support for fair representation in court, which could include people earning minimum wage, pensioners and single parents.

What is Legal Aid?
The cost of court fees can be astronomical and not everyone has the financial means with which to pay for the services that they require. Legal aid is the subsidised support given to those who would otherwise be unable to afford the legal representation. The service, although funded by tax, is usually provided through private firms of solicitors and barristers, as well as from not-for-profit organisations. As well as representation in court, people can receive mediation and advice.

Under the old rules, legal aid would be available in most cases, particularly to people unable to pay for their own representation. However, the changes of 1st April mean that the goal posts have now been moved so that even the fiscally incapable will not always receive the legal aid that they need. The new rules are detailed below.

New Rules
One of the major areas to be affected by the new rules is family law. Where as before, divorce and separation proceedings, as well as financial proceedings on divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership, were covered for legal aid without question, this service has now been relinquished. Also gone, is legal aid for proceedings for contact and living arrangements of children, disputes between unmarried couples and personal injuries claims.

There will also be more stringent testing as the government attempts to clamp down on those who are able to afford their own legal costs but who abuse the relaxed system. To qualify for the service, a person now has to complete a means test, a eligibility test that considers closely a person's income, savings and domestic situation.

Despite the sweeping cutbacks, service are still available to those who have suffered domestic violence, as well as for proceedings for child abduction, child care, child abuse and forced marriage protection orders.

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