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11 March 2014
The above is an increasingly common question that I am now asked by new clients on the telephone or when they come through the door, following the recent government changes to Legal Aid.
There does now appear to be a common misconception with the majority of the public that legal aid is no longer available for family law cases in any circumstances. This is not correct. Legal aid does remain available in many instances, so don't be afraid to ask.
Importantly, legal aid is also still available, subject to financial eligibility, for mediation to help people resolve matters such as arrangements for their children, or financial issues. There also remains legal aid assistance for a solicitor to provide you with advice during the course of and immediately following any mediation that you have participated in. I have been surprised to learn that there has been a significant reduction in the number of legal aid cases in West Yorkshire since the 1st April 2013, despite the fact that it is an area of law where legal aid remains as readily available as it was prior to the changes.
It is true that there has been a significant reduction in the availability for legal aid for what might be considered the most common areas of family law; matters such as divorce, disputes over contact for children and financial matters following the breakdown of a relationship. The Government has taken the view that legal aid is not essential for these types of matters and people would simply have to find other ways to resolve such matters, either by finding the resources to pay a solicitor or dealing with the matter themselves.
If you are on a low income and believe that you need legal advice or assistance with a family matter you may understandably despair as to what to do. All is not lost however. Even if the few short months since the Legal Aid Sentencing & Punishment Order was introduced in April 2013 it is already clear to me that solicitors are seeking to be increasingly creative in finding ways to still try to assist. Traditionally solicitors have always carried out family work at an hourly rate, and which can, I believe, appear daunting to some people particularly if at the beginning of a case when it is not clear how matters may be progressed. We ourselves have now introduced a comprehensive package of fixed prices for family work, to try to give clients more certainty as to the likely fees that they will incur and where appropriate payment of fees can now often be staggered and paid across the life of a case to make payments more manageable. It should also be born in mind that even where legal aid is not available, those on low income may be able to obtain fee exemptions for Court fees which can be a significant saving.
In short, if you require legal advice with regard to a family law matter and your immediate thought is "I can't afford a solicitor" don't presume that you won't be able to obtain assistance. We offer a free 45 minute initial consultation for all new family clients. We also offer a free out of hours advice clinic for family law matters at our Wakefield office between 9:30am to 12:30pm on a Saturday and 5:15pm to 8pm on a Wednesday.
Our family solicitors will sit down with you and consider what options may be available to you in terms of legal aid, and if legal aid is not available we will discuss and set out clearly to you what the costs will be in instructing a solicitor privately. We will also discuss how the payment of those costs may be structured in a way which may be manageable, having regard to your particular circumstances.