Time is running out for Legal Aid says Don Bird - partner and head of the Family Department – at Atherton Godfrey
The end of Legal Aid as we know it is almost upon us and as from 1 April 2013 it will only be available for care proceedings, domestic violence, or cases in which there has been domestic violence and advice when attending family mediation - other than in limited exceptional cases. This will be a major culture change for solicitors and their clients.
No longer will divorces or dissolution of civil partnership be within the scope of Legal Aid, nor will proceedings relating to financial matters arising out of relationship breakdown or disputes regarding children - however low an income a client may have.
Most solicitors who carry out Legal Aid work are well advanced in putting into place fixed fee arrangements and considering how they can best make fees both affordable and understandable for those who need help. It is essential that solicitors advise their clients now of the potential consequences of these changes or they could risk finding themselves on the wrong end of complaints or even negligence claims.
If a client is already receiving advice under the Legal Help Scheme but may need to progress to a full Legal Aid Certificate, the application for the Certificate must be lodged with the Legal Services Commission before 1 April. Bearing in mind how long it can take clients to complete the financial assessment forms and provide all the necessary information, this is something to be planning for now. Clients should also be made aware that if they are already attending mediation and it breaks down Legal Aid then will not be available to deal with the dispute through the courts.
If a client already has a Certificate, it will continue after 1 April but should their financial circumstances change, they will be reassessed under the new rules, which are less generous than the existing provisions. This means that they may not qualify for Legal Aid after a reassessment. Also, if they are legally aided for one matter, such as an issue relating to children, it will not be possible after 1 April to amend the Certificate to cover another, such as financial matters.
Solicitors are being recommended to write to their clients now, including any who are not legally aided but may at some time in the near future need it, to inform them of the changes. Finally, it is important that the public are made aware of the impending changes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a large proportion of the public who may be affected are not aware of it.
The Government is keen to persuade people to resolve matters through mediation and so Legal Aid for mediation will continue. New contracts have recently been entered into with providers of legally aided mediation as those who undertake mediation will be looking to an increase in the level of this work to replace some of the work which will inevitably be lost.