Did Legal Aid Die With LASPO?
It has now been 18 months since the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (known as LASPO) 2013 amended the criteria for client’s seeking publically funded (previously known as Legal Aid) family advice and / or representation. As the only Solicitor at Eric Robinson’s to offer clients public funding for family law matters, I have certainly experienced the dramatic reduction of clients now able to benefit from public funding, under both the legal help scheme for advice and public funding certificates for representation in court proceedings.
What is clear from enquiries we receive is that a large section of the public are unclear as to whether public funding still exists, and if so, who is entitled to it and under what circumstances. The rules and required evidence are not straightforward and as a result, it is difficult to give a quick and clear answer a client who wants to know if they can obtain public funding. This is especially so given that a client needs to qualify on both a “merits” test as well as a “means” test.
The “merits” test was implemented by the government to limit the number of people who would qualify for legal funding, to significantly reduce the country’s legal funding expenditure. As a result, they have limited public funding to those people in society who they believe require such access to legal advice in order to protect themselves and / or their children against past or present risk of domestic abuse.
This means that a person seeking legal funding must fulfil one of the following: They have suffered domestic abuse from their ex-spouse / partnerThey have been assessed as being at risk of suffering domestic abuse from their ex-spouse / partnerThey have a child who has suffered domestic abuse from their ex-spouse / partnerThey have a child assessed as being at risk of suffering domestic abuse from their ex-spouse / partner
In addition, the person seeking funding must be able to provide documentary evidence of the above, meaning that their word of suffering domestic abuse is not enough. This causes a real difficulty in practice as due to the very nature of domestic abuse, more often than not, such abuse has been suffered in silence meaning that a genuine sufferer of abuse is unable to access legal funding due to a lack of paperwork.
For the people who can overcome the “merits” test, they will then be subject to a “means” test. This is where their capital and income will be assessed to see if their monthly disposable income and disposable capital is beneath the limits set by the Legal Aid Agency. If so, they will qualify, if not, they will not.
It is easy to be pessimistic about these changes and to take the view that public funding is now dead. This would however be unfair. Whilst the number of clients that I am able to offer public funding to has reduced significantly since April 2013, it is still available to certain people who would benefit greatly from expert legal advice and / or representation which otherwise may be beyond their reach.
There is however another way in which people can obtain legally funded advice, which is not subject to any “merits” test. This is perhaps the best kept secret of LASPO, as the scheme, known as Help with Family Mediation, has been greatly underused with only a minimum level of reported claims to the Legal Aid Agency.
For people who have a family dispute, who want to resolve the matter as amicably, cost effectively and as quickly as possible, do consider mediation as an alternative option. If you attend mediation with your ex-spouse / partner, your mediator can assess you to see if you would qualify for publically funded Help with Mediation. If so, you can then instruct an expert Solicitor who can advise you regarding your matter, and if an agreement is reached, assist you in preparing your agreement into the relevant legal document.
All in all therefore whilst legal funding has been severely restricted, it is unwise to turn off the life monitor just yet, as there is still some life in the old girl yet!