This advice applies to Northern Ireland. Change country
Help with legal costs
If you need help with legal costs you may be able to receive some help through legal aid. There are five different types of legal aid:-
- Legal advice and assistance (the green form scheme), covering advice before the case goes to court
- Assistance by way of representation (ABWOR), covering advice before a case and representation in court. It applies to civil cases in magistrates' courts, for example, proceedings in relation to children, and is available to patients before Mental Health Review Tribunals
- Civil legal aid, covering advice and representation in civil proceedings including court costs and professional fees.
- Statutory Exceptional Grant Scheme
- Criminal legal aid
Legal aid allows people with a low income to get free legal advice and assistance from a solicitor or other organisation. A solicitor must be a member of the Law Society of Northern Ireland to provide help under the green form scheme.
What sort of help does the scheme cover
The green form scheme covers help from a solicitor including general advice on any legal problems, writing letters, negotiating, getting a barrister’s opinion and evidence which might assist your case such as a medical report as well as preparing a written case for a tribunal.
The scheme will not pay for being represented by a solicitor in court or at a tribunal.It covers advice and assistance but excludes representation.
It enables people of small or moderate means to get help from a solicitor free of charge or for a contribution, until the solicitor's charges reach the equivalent of two hours work. The solicitor cannot exceed this limit without permission from the Commission.
The scheme may cover the costs of mediation. Mediation is a process of negotiation where the parties are helped by a neutral mediator to find a solution acceptable to both of them.
Legal problems covered by the scheme
The green form scheme covers advice on general legal problems including advice on the following:-
- maintenance or disputes over children and undefended divorce. It is only available for the person starting proceedings, not the respondent
- conveyancing necessary to carry out a court order or following a divorce settlement or legal separation
- contested adoptions
- preparing for tribunals, for example, employment tribunals (for unfair dismissal) or unified appeal tribunals (for benefits appeals), but not representation at the tribunal itself
- help with the legal costs of making a will
- medical negligence cases or cases where personal injury arises from an assault or deliberate abuse.
For your case to qualify for the green form scheme, there are two criteria that must always be met:-
- help will be provided only where it can be shown there is a benefit to you
- help will be provided only if it is reasonable for the matter to be funded.
How much work is covered by the scheme
The amount of help available under the green form scheme is limited. Generally the scheme will pay the solicitor for 2 hours of work for all areas of law, except for immigration cases where the maximum varies.. The solicitor can apply for extra time to finish the work under the green form scheme. This is known as an extension. The solicitor can also claim travel expenses and might be able to obtain authority to pay a fee to a doctor or other professional to provide a report to help your case.
What are the financial conditions for the scheme
Your solicitor is responsible for determining your financial eligibility for assistance under the Legal Advice and Assistance Scheme. Your solicitor will base the assessment on your income and capital for the seven days up to and including the date upon which you signed the Legal Advice and Assistance form.
You should let your solicitor know of any change in your financial or personal circumstances.
If you have a partner (someone with whom you normally reside as a couple including a person of the same sex), your partner’s savings and income will be usually be included.
For further information see the Department of Justice website.
Extra costs you may have to pay
In some cases, your solicitor's costs may be taken from any money or property you are awarded in court, and you will receive what's left. This deduction is called the statutory charge. Your solicitor will give you more information about the effects of the statutory charge before you decide to go ahead with your case.
How to apply
If you qualify for the green form scheme, you will need to see a solicitor, or organisation with a contract to provide legal help under the green form scheme. You can find a solicitor
- in the solicitor directory on the Law Society’s website
- ask your local Citizens' Advice or advice centre
ABWOR covers the cost of a solicitor preparing your case and representing you in most civil cases in the Magistrate’s Court and/or Family Proceedings Court. These cases include separation, maintenance, Children Order, protection orders in respect of domestic violence (known as Non-Molestation Orders) and paternity proceedings. It is also available to applicants in relation to advice and proceedings before a Mental Health Review Tribunal and prisoners making applications to the Parole Commission for Northern Ireland.
How to apply
Apply through your solicitor who will fill in the Green Form. Except in the case of Police and Criminal Evidence, Prevention of Terrorism and some Children Order cases, the person applying for ABWOR must show that there are reasonable grounds for taking, defending or being a party to the proceedings.
The same income conditions apply as for Legal Advice and Assistance, although the savings limit is different. Your solicitor will be able to give you further information on financial eligibility.
You may have had Legal Advice and Assistance over a legal problem but your solicitor has not been able to resolve it. Your solicitor may then advise you that your case should be taken to court. Civil Legal Aid covers all the work leading up to and including the court proceedings and representation by a solicitor and, if necessary, a barrister.
You should seek the advice of your solicitor about applying for Civil Legal Aid even if you do not qualify for Legal Advice and Assistance. This is because, although the income limit for Civil Legal Aid is similar to that for Legal Advice and Assistance, the savings limit is higher.
What sort of help does the scheme cover
Civil Legal Aid is available for cases in:
- The Supreme Court
- Court of Appeal
- High Court
- Divisional Court
- Lands Tribunal
- Enforcement of Judgements Office
You can not get Civil Legal Aid for proceedings before a Coroner's court and most tribunals or for proceedings involving defamation including libel and slander. However, you may be able to get advice about these proceedings under Legal advice and assistance: The green form scheme.
How to apply
Ask your solicitor to fill in the legal aid forms and send them to the Legal Services Agency. It is important that you give your solicitor accurate information to ensure that the forms are filled in correctly. Incorrectly completed forms could stop or delay you getting legal aid.
If your case is urgent, your solicitor can apply for Emergency Legal Aid. This can be granted immediately subject to the statutory tests.
What are the conditions of civil legal aid
To qualify for Civil Legal Aid, you must:
- qualify financially and
- show that you have reasonable grounds for taking or defending or being party to proceedings and that it is reasonable to grant you legal aid in the circumstances of your case. This is called the “merits test”
Your solicitor can provide further information on eligibility.
You can find more information on the Department of Justice website.
This Scheme covers applications for funding for proceedings outside the scope of legal aid in specified circumstances. It may be possible, for example, to obtain funding for representation at an inquest. Contact your solicitor for further information.
For cases involving criminal proceedings you may be eligible for help through legal aid. This could cover the cost of representation by solicitors or barristers and for bail applications. Getting criminal legal aid depends mainly on whether it is ‘in the interests of justice’ that you are legally represented.
Criminal legal aid does not cover you if you bring a criminal prosecution yourself.
How to obtain Legal Aid
If you receive a summons to appear before a Magistrate you should at once contact a solicitor who will be able to advise you. If you are held in custody, you should request that the PSNI communicate with the solicitor of your choice. If you do not know the name of a solicitor, the police station will have lists of solicitors willing to attend. All advice and assistance from a solicitor at a police station or holding centre under the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 (PACE) is free.
Unlike the other legal aid schemes, legal aid in criminal court proceedings has no specified financial eligibility limits, but the court must be satisfied that your means are such that it is desirable in the interests of justice that you be granted legal aid.
Depending on the nature of the matter, if you can’t get legal aid you may be able to get legal help from other sources. Some of these are listed below.
Exemption or reduction of court fees
Even if you don’t qualify for legal aid, you might still get an exemption or a reduction in court fees if you are on a low income, you get certain benefits or you would suffer hardship. You need to fill in a ER1 form .
If you’ve already paid a fee, you can apply for a refund as long as this is within 6 months of the date you paid it.
If you are sending a Petition for Divorce to the court, send the completed ER1 form with the petition form.
For more information, see the leaflet Do I have to pay fees? on the Courts and Tribunals Service website.
Fixed fee or free initial interview
Some solicitors may give up to an hour’s legal advice for a fixed fee or free of charge. This can be useful if you want to get an idea of whether you have a case which is worth defending or pursuing.
The fixed fee or free initial interview scheme does not depend on your income or savings - the charge will be the same for everyone.
Check the Law Society’s directory of solicitors and ask if they offer a fixed fee or free initial consultation.
Trade unions may provide free legal representation for work related problems including travel to or from work. Free union representation may be more suitable for you than legal aid. This is because you will not have to make a financial contribution.
Motoring organisations may offer a cheap or free legal advisory service if you are a member.
Legal expenses insurance
Some insurance companies offer policies which cover the expenses of certain legal matters, for example, consumer disputes, personal injuries, employment problems and motoring offences. It is important for you to consider carefully what the policy offers. Many policies will exclude certain kinds of legal expenses of, for example, matrimonial disputes, or may not meet the total cost of claims that are covered.
To search for details of your nearest Citizens Advice Bureau, click on nearest CAB.
More about using a legal adviser.