Am I entitled to Legal Aid for a family law matter?
What is Legal Aid?
Legal Aid is state funding of the costs of an individual’s legal case. Since the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO 2012) in 2013, the scope of legal aid entitlement for family law matters has significantly reduced.
Types of legal aid for family matters
There are two types of family legal aid available- Legal Help (enabling a solicitor to provide initial advice and assistance with your case) and Legal Representation (enabling a solicitor to represent you in court proceedings.
Generally, there are three considerations for legal aid entitlement:
- Scope – your case must be eligible for legal aid
- Means – an assessment of financial circumstances to check you cannot afford to pay legal costs. Some cases of child protection do not need a means assessment.
- Merits – your problem must be serious, you must have a reasonable likelihood of success, and a reasonable person would use their own funds to pay for the case.
Whether your children case is eligible for legal aid depends on the type of case it is or whether you can prove you or your children have experienced abuse.
Types of family law
“Public Law” cases are automatically eligible for legal aid. This is where a Local Authority has concerns about safeguarding a child and has started an investigation or made an application to court. For example:
- application for a care order
- application for a supervision order
- application for a secure accommodation order
- application for a placement order
- application to discharge a care order
- social workers ask you to come to a meeting about your child
Often in public law cases legal aid is available to parents (or carers with parental responsibility) whatever their financial situation. For example, if the Local Authority has applied for a care order for your child, you are automatically entitled to Legal Aid.
“Private Law” cases are disputes between parents or family members about a child, often following a separation. For example:
- Disputes about who a child should live with
- Disputes about who a child should spend time with.
With the exception of cases of child abduction, legal aid in private law matters is only available to people who can prove they have experienced domestic abuse or their children have been harmed. LASPO 2012 sets out strict evidential requirements, known as “gateway” evidence, which must be provided in order to satisfy the test for legal aid, and the Legal Aid Agency who administers legal aid, has no discretion to accept alternative evidence or to waive the requirement for evidence.
Acceptable gateway evidence includes:
- An arrest or police caution for a domestic violence offence
- A conviction for a domestic violence offence
- A letter or report from an appropriate health professional or referral to a domestic violence support service
- A letter from an organisation providing domestic abuse support services
- Leave to remain in the UK as a victim of domestic violence
- A protective injunction or undertaking
- Findings made in a family court.
- An arrest or police caution for a child abuse offence
- A letter from social services confirming a risk or victim of child abuse
- A letter from social services confirming a child protection plan
- A copy of a child protection plan
- A protection injunction.
In addition to gateway evidence, legal aid for private law matters is both means and merits tested. You must be financially eligible to receive legal aid, from both an income and capital (i.e. your assets) basis and the overall likelihood of success in your case should be sufficient enough to justify the use of public funds to assist you in your case.
Legal Aid for Family Mediation
Legal Aid is available for mediation in children cases; it is means tested. This blog talks about children cases. Legal aid is also available for cases involving applications for protective orders in domestic abuse cases, and for cases involving forced marriage or female genital mutilation.
Should you wish to discuss a family law matter, please contact our Family Law Team on 0191 243 8163. A member of our team can discuss your circumstances with you in more detail and consider your eligibility for legal aid.