A guide to legal aid for Divorce or Family Matters
Cute piggybank image to reflect Family and Matrimonial law

Can I get Legal Aid for a Divorce or Family Matter?

Paying your legal fees when you have a Divorce or Family Matter

Family / Matrimonial

Can I get Legal Aid for a Divorce or Family Matter?

Since 2013 the availability of Legal Aid has been reduced a great deal. Family and divorce cases such as contact and residence for children (access and custody) together with financial disputes have largely been removed from legal aid scope.

In some very limited circumstances, such as cases involving domestic violence, Legal Aid is still available. However even there it is not enough to just say there has been domestic violence, because applications for that legal aid have to be supported with evidence from official sources such as a doctor or social worker.

Even if someone qualifies for Legal Aid because their family matter is one of the few remaining in scope, applicants still have to pass a means test which is quite stringent. It does not take a lot in terms of income or capital assets to fail the means test.

Another problem is that lots of solicitors who previously offered legal aid no longer do it. So it can be difficult to find a Legal Aid solicitor in some areas of the country, even if you do qualify.

If you are a parent involved in childcare proceedings, then Legal Aid without a means or merits test is still available. But it’s important to appreciate that this only applies in childcare cases where the Local Authority is seeking an order to take children into care or otherwise supervise them. It does not apply to court proceedings where parents are in dispute with each other over matters relating to their children and the Local Authority is not involved.

So in summary, unless it’s a Local Authority Care case or involves reported domestic violence, it’s very unlikely that Legal Aid will be available for a family law matter. Even when it is, applicants usually have to pass a means test and find a Legal Aid solicitor.

 

If you cannot get Legal Aid what are the other options?

It is possible to represent yourself in court proceedings. Increasingly people are doing that because they cannot afford representation. The court staff can help you fill in the right forms, but they cannot give you legal advice or tell you how to run your case. Some free advice agencies such as the Citizens Advice Bureau may be able to give guidance, but they usually won’t represent you in Court.

There are mediation services which can be cheaper than going through court proceedings, but even if you reach an agreement through mediation, you may need a court order to approve it.

Some solicitors offer fixed price Family law services. Sometimes those are in relation to just certain steps in a case. So, if you have agreed everything with your spouse or ex-spouse and just need a court order then a fixed fee service from a solicitor to get that may be a good option. However, if you are discussing fixed fees check what it actually covers. It may not cover everything that you need. A divorce fixed fee for example can mean simply the divorce itself and not cover any disputes about children or finances. So, check what the fixed fee does cover if you are looking at them with a solicitor.

Some solicitors offer funding arrangements where you take out a loan to pay your legal fees. Obviously, it is sensible to check the costs of that loan and repayment arrangements.

Many people rely on financial support from family or friends to assist with legal fees.

If you are paying legal fees yourself and you are not on a fixed fee with your solicitor, you need to check and understand the arrangement that you have. Some solicitors in family proceedings will wait for payment until the end of the case but if you think that is what you have agreed, get it in writing so that there is no dispute about that.

More commonly solicitors will just bill monthly for what they have done, charged at an hourly rate. Often, they will require money upfront to cover bills in advance. Hourly rates need to be treated carefully because a low rate does not always mean a smaller bill. Someone doing the work quickly and spending less hours on it may bill for a lower overall amount than someone who charges a lower hourly rate but spends more hours on it.

Solicitors are now required to give their clients estimates of their costs, so whatever the hourly rate the solicitor should give you some idea of the overall likely bill and update you on that if the estimate changes. But remember that is only an estimate and not a fixed fee. You need to be very clear about the type of arrangement you have entered into with your solicitor, ensuring that it is clear whether you have agreed a fixed fee arrangement for a certain amount of work, or an estimate that may change.

Finally, in a very limited number of family cases Legal Expense Insurance may be available. Generally Legal Expense Insurance does not cover family work, but some insurers or membership organisations may cover certain types of cases. Legal Expense insurance can typically be found as part of other insurance policies such as your household insurance or can be part of memberships such as unions or professional associations. So, it is always worth checking your policies and memberships for legal cover.