Legal Aid has been subject to many changes in the last two years. Here are some of the rules on who qualifies, and which offences qualify at the different stages of Criminal Proceedings.
Legal Aid at the Police Station
Legal advice from a solicitor of your choice is free at the police station. A police officer must telephone your solicitor to tell him or her that you have been arrested, and they can attend at the Government’s expense.
Legal Aid in the Magistrates Court
In the Magistrates Court, there is a two-stage test for whether a person qualifies for Legal Aid. Both stages must be passed, or Legal Aid will not be given. The duty solicitor is available at court only for individuals who qualify for legal aid, not for anyone who arrives at court needing representation.
The Interests of Justice Test
The first is called the ‘Interests of Justice’ test. To pass this stage of the test, the defendant must show that he or she is genuinely in need of legal advice. The Legal Aid form says that damage to one’s reputation is considered, or that not understanding the proceedings without a lawyer is relevant. However, the reality is that usually only the possibility of a prison sentence for the offence alleged is enough to pass this stage of the test.
In extreme cases, where the defendant is disabled, driving offences may qualify for legal aid under this stage of the Legal Aid two-stage test. In general, only the most serious driving offences qualify for Legal Aid.
The Means Test
The second stage of the two-stage test for Legal Aid is the means test.
No-one who has a joint income (with their partner) of over £22,000 (approx) can qualify for Legal Aid in the Magistrates court. Anyone who has a joint income of over £11,000 (approx) is only entitled to partial Legal Aid.
People in custody will usually pass the means test.
If the Interests of Justice Test is not satisfied, no Legal Aid will be granted, no matter what the income of the accused person. If someone fails in an application for legal aid, they can make another application on the grounds of hardship. Such an application is rarely accepted by the Legal Services Commission, who decide how legal aid is distributed.
How Crown Court Legal Aid Funding Works
Once a case reaches the Crown Court, Legal Aid is generally available for those who qualify under the means test. However, where the defendant has above average income or any assets, the court will usually make an order that the defendant make a contribution to his or her legal aid. The word ‘contribution’ here is misleading, however. In many cases the defendant will be asked to pay the court for their legal aid contribution more than the solicitor or barrister are even paid. This means that it is sometimes in the client’s best interests to not apply for legal aid, or accept legal aid if required to make a ‘contribution’.
Our advice to clients in general (especially those who have not been convicted of an offence before) is to pay privately if they can. However, we continue to strive to provide a high quality service on legal aid, if the client qualifies.