What is legal aid?

From employment law claims to appealing a decision in court, legal assistance can be expensive. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t able to get the assistance that you need from a solicitor just because of your financial situation; and this is because of a form of financial assistance called legal aid.    

Depending on your financial and other personal circumstances you might be eligible for legal aid, and although the initial paperwork can be a little difficult to complete, many of our clients in receipt of benefits or on a low income are eligible to apply for legal aid.  

Those clients who are eligible for legal aid will have some or all their legal fees paid by the Scottish Government. This is quite important because human rights law states that everyone should be entitled to a fair hearing irrespective of their financial circumstances.   

Legal aid has ensured that many people who would otherwise be disenfranchised and fall through the gaps in the system a chance to challenge claims made against them or to submit their own.  

The system of legal aid in Scotland is not without criticism.   

One major criticism is that the fees available to solicitor are far too low compared with the rates paid to solicitors working privately.  This means that the quality of the service available to clients through legal aid cannot be the same as someone who pays privately.  Another common criticism is that a plumber or other tradesperson can earn more per hour than a solicitor providing legal aid for clients and that this is inherently unfair.  Unlike a plumber, solicitors are regulated by the law society and have considerable overheads to pay upfront before being allowed to practice law.  As a result, many solicitors providing legal aid cannot afford to pay themselves or their staff a living wage.     

From a client’s perspective, the system is also far from perfect but it does allow applicants to receive legal advice in any area of Scots Law.  Clients are required to provide evidence of their income and personal circumstances to test their eligibility.  Additionally, clients are required to complete difficult and complex paperwork which many people struggle to understand.   

The criteria for those who are eligible for legal aid can be quite stringent and although some clients may be eligible for initial advice, it does not mean that they will be entitled to further assistance at a later date. 

To receive legal aid, you either one need to be receiving income support such as jobseekers’ allowance, employment and support allowance or universal credit that isn’t contribution based; or secondly, earn under the income threshold to be successful in your application.  

This income thresholds together with the criteria for eligibility for legal aid can be access on the Scottish Legal Aid Board website.  There are also several online calculators which clients can use to assess their own financial circumstances to see if they are eligible for legal aid.  

Remember, the information available online is only a guide. A solicitor will determine your eligibility for legal aid based on your financial and personal circumstances.  Additionally, the solicitor will require information about your potential case and whether you have recourse to legal assistance from another source for example, a trade union or a home insurance policy.   

Legal Spark is registered with the Scottish Legal Aid Board to provide civil legal aid services.  If you are in receipt of benefits or on a low income and have a legal problem that concerns Scots Law, please contact us and will see if we can help.