Legal Aid is now known as Community Legal Service Funding and is administered by the Legal Services Commission. Over recent years it has become much harder to get, with stricter financial requirements and less areas of law covered. However, it still plays a considerable role within our legal system.
To be eligible for Community Legal Service Funding you have to pass both means and merits tests. This means that you have to both qualify as financially in need of support for your case and your case is one which merits the Commission funding it. Generally they will not provide funding if a solicitor is prepared to conduct the case on a conditional fee agreement in any event. For family cases other than domestic violence the client is expected to partake of mediation before full funding will be provided.
Where costs are payable to a solicitors' firm by the Legal Services Commission then the hourly rate is fixed, irrespective of whether the person dealing with the case is a solicitor, barrister, clerk or secretary. Legal Aid firms have to work efficiently delegating work to the lowest grade of fee earner who can do the work. This means there is no guarantee that the work will be done by a lawyer. They also have to comply with high administrative demands, which means there is no guarantee that their costs will be less than a solicitor instructed privately.
Legal Aid is not free. You may have to pay a contribution to the cost. In addition, if you recover anything and the other side do not pay all your legal costs then any shortfall may come out of what you recover. This is known as the "statutory charge". If you recover property to live in the charge is usually attached to this and would only have to be re-paid when you sold the property. However, this is not a free loan as interest runs at 8% a year on the amount due.
If you win your case and the other side have to pay towards your costs your solicitors have the windfall of being paid at standard rates instead of legal aid rates. However, the costs of administering your legal aid will still have to come out of any damages or property you recover.
Should a costs Order be made against a legally aided client then under s11(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999 the Court has to assess the amount that is reasonable for that person to pay taking into account their circumstances. This applies to civil disputes, but not family cases as a result of amendments to the Community Legal Service (Cost Protection) Regulations 2000 made in 2005. Any application for assessment has to be made within 3 months of the Order unless you can show a significant change in circumstances, information has come to light which was not reasonably available before or there is other good reason to allow late assessment, in which case the amount can be assessed up to 6 years from the original Order.
At the end of the case the bill for the legally aided work will be assessed either by the Legal Services Commission or the Court. The bill has to be sent to the client first to consider and see if they wish to raise any objections. Clients very rarely seem to raise any objections, even though the bills are often high and the work done inefficiently. The case on creating time in our horror stories was a Legal Aid case.
Civil/family legal aid bills have to be submitted to the Legal Services Commission within strict time limits under Regulation 105 (as amended) of the Civil Legal Aid (General) Regulations 1989. If the bill is late and no proper explanation is provided then guidelines state that the following deductions should be made to the bill:
- Up to 9 months late - 5%
- Between 9 and 18 months late - 10%
- Between 18 and 27 months late - 15%
- Between 27 and 36 months late - 20%
- Between 36 and 45 months late - 30%
- If the claim is submitted later than 48 months from conclusion it may still be considered, but higher deductions are likely to be applied.
Where the assessment has to be carried out by the Court then under Regulation 109 of the Civil Legal Aid (General) Regulations 1989 the Court has the power to reduce or disallow the bill. A reduction in the bill is much more likely than the bill being completely disallowed. There is no fixed amount of reduction that would apply. Some judges use the reductions the Legal Services Commission would apply as a benchmark.
You have a limited time to raise any objections and the letter with the bill will let you know what these are.
We offer a fixed fee service to clients to advise on challenges to a Legal Aid bill at a cost of £100 + VAT. If you have received a Legal Aid bill and wish to receive advice then send us a copy of the bill with a cheque for the full fee and details of your telephone number and e-mail address. We will then provide an advice within 3 days. If you want the bill back you also need to enclose a stamped, addressed envelope.
On the last 2 bills we challenged the clients saved over £5,000 each. Let us help you. If we cannot find savings more than our fee you will receive a full refund.
If you need our help, either e-mail us anytime, or call 01404 861868.