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Civil legal aid: an overview

This content applies to England & Wales

Overview of civil legal aid relevant to housing advice, forms of civil legal services, legal aid advisers, and termination of provision.

Main provisions

The main provisions regulating scope and eligibility for civil legal aid are contained in Parts 1-2 and Schedule 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO):

  • Sections 8-12 and 21-26 set out the operating provisions of the scheme
  • Part 1 of Schedule 1 sets out the proceedings that remain in scope
  • Parts 2-3 of Schedule 1 set out the exclusions
  • Part 4 of Schedule 1 sets out the definitions.

The rules governing the criteria and procedures for funding a case from 1 April 2013 are:

  • Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) Regulations 2013 SI 2013/104, which set out merits tests applicable
  • Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012 SI 2012/3098, which set out how applications should be made and how cases are conducted
  • Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013 SI 2013/480, which sets out the rules and thresholds for financial eligibility.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Consequential, Transitional and Saving Provisions) Regulations 2013 SI 2013/534 provides for transitional arrangements for legal aid applications made before 1 April 2013.

What is civil legal aid

Civil legal aid takes the form of:

  • controlled work (which includes the Civil Legal Advice (CLA) gateway)
  • licensed work (also known as certificated work)
  • housing possession court duty schemes.

The different legal services (known as 'forms of civil legal services') provided can range from basic legal advice or letter writing to full representation through the court system.

Legal aid is means tested. In addition, clients must meet 'merits tests'. These tests differ according to the form of legal services that clients receive (see the page on Civil legal aid: scope and eligibility for more information).

Controlled work

Controlled work can be provided by CLA or a firm/organisation with a legal aid contract in the relevant area of law.[1] It includes the following forms of civil legal aid services:

CLA Gateway

CLA is a national advice line, which will assess clients' initial financial eligibility and that their problems are covered (ie within scope).

Clients with a problem in debt (including mortgage repossession), discrimination and education can only access civil legal aid through CLA. Clients with a problem in other areas of civil law such as housing (including homelessness,possession of rented property, and serious disrepair) and family law can choose to contact CLA or go direct to a legal aid provider with a contract in the relevant area of law.

Eligible clients will be given advice by phone or online by a CLA specialist, unless they are 'exempt persons' or require the provision of Legal Representation and/or face-to-face advice, in which case they will be referred on.

For more information about the CLA gateway see the page on CLA Gateway.

Legal Help

This covers advice and limited assistance on legal problems short of representation. For more information about the 'merits tests' applicable and what type of work can be provided under Legal Help see the page on Legal Help and Help at Court.

Help at Court

This covers help and advocacy for a client in relation to a particular hearing, without formally acting as legal representative in the proceedings (eg where the client is a defendant to possession proceedings on the grounds of rent arrears and the claim for possession is not disputed, but there is a dispute over the amount of arrears owed).

For more information about the 'merits tests' applicable and what type of work can be provided under Help at Court see the page on Legal Help and Help at Court.

Licensed work

Licensed work can only be provided by a firm/organisation with a legal aid contract in the relevant area of law.

Legal Representation

This covers legal representation, other than acting as a mediator or arbitrator, for a party to proceedings, or for a person who is contemplating taking proceedings, and includes:

  • litigation
  • advocacy
  • steps preliminary or incidental to proceedings.

When civil legal aid is provided as licensed work, it is awarded by the Legal Aid Agency on a case-by-case basis. The solicitor will make an application on behalf of the client. If a certificate is granted, it will determine the scope of the representation required and a maximum amount that will be paid on behalf of the applicant to assist with legal costs. If during the matter, the case requires more work to be carried out, the solicitor must apply to amend the certificate.

For more information about the 'merits tests' applicable and what type of work can be provided under Legal Representation see the page on Legal Representation.

Housing possession court duty schemes

Legal aid funds county court duty schemes throughout England and Wales to provide free legal advice and representation on the day of their hearing to people facing possession proceedings. The duty schemes are not means tested. They are available to all regardless of their financial circumstances.

If a client helped by the duty scheme requires follow up work on debt, s/he will need to be referred to the CLA Gateway (see above).

The majority of county courts in England and Wales have a duty scheme, operated by a firm or agency under contract to the Legal Aid Agency.

Connections between different forms of legal services

The general rule is that each form of civil legal service is separate from the others. An applicant will need to apply and be granted the correct forms of services depending on the kind of problem s/he has.

Termination of legal aid

Legal aid can be withdrawn for various reasons, including if the client:

  • was wrongly granted legal aid
  • does not provide all the information required/does not collaborate
  • ceases to qualify because of a change of circumstances
  • does not keep up with the payment of agreed contributions
  • consents/has received the legal aid services granted
  • goes bankrupt, or
  • has died.

The provision of civil legal aid can be stopped in two ways:

By discharge

The funding will stop from the point when the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) send the client a notice to tell her/him this is going to happen.

By revocation

The funding is cancelled retrospectively, if the LAA discovers that the client was wrongly granted legal aid, for example because s/he gave false information about her/his finances. In this case, the client may have to repay all the money spent on her/his case.

How to find a legal aid adviser

important All legal advisers, with or without a legal aid contract, have a duty to tell their clients about the possible availability of legal aid and must give them the option of going to a legal aid provider. If the client suffers financial loss because s/he was not told about legal aid, for example, if s/he has to pay an opponent's costs in full, the legal adviser may have to compensate the client for professional negligence.

Civil legal aid services can be provided by CLA, solicitors or not-for-profit organisations, such as Shelter, Legal Advice Centres or Citizens Advice, with a contract in the relevant area of law. Legal aid advisers can be found by searching on Legal Adviser Finder or through the Law Society.

Clients can also be referred to the CLA gateway for initial determination of scope and financial eligibility (for more information about the CLA gateway and its contact details see the page on CLA Gateway).

[1] As set out in Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

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