Students working on The OU’s Open Justice project will be aware that the availability of free legal advice and representation has become increasingly limited over recent years and, for those in need of legal services, the thought of self-funding the legal help they need can seem a particularly daunting prospect.
The oft quoted quip attributed to Lord Justice Mathew, that ‘in England, justice is open to all – like the Ritz’ seems to have been borne out research published in 2016 which found fees for partners at top London law firms is now as high as £1000 per hour, with average hourly rates for senior staff outside the capital exceeding £200. Eye watering fees likes these can make a week’s holiday at the Ritz seem a bargain in comparison. However, if you do find yourself with a legal problem, there are affordable ways to access the legal advice and representation you may need.
Although £1000 per hour fees are out of reach for most individuals, law firms offer a range of funding solutions that can nevertheless be an affordable and efficient means of accessing legal help. Many law firms will offer a short free initial interview to explore the nature of your issue. The Solicitors Regulation Authority provides a helpful guide for the type of fee arrangement which will form the basis of your agreement. There is a considerable amount of flexibility on offer with fee arrangements ranging from a fixed fee to “no win no fee” funding arrangements where your lawyer will only get paid if the case is successful.
“No win no fee” arrangements are of two types; conditional fee arrangements (CFAs) and damage based agreements (DBAs). For a CFA, if you win the case, the losing side will pay your legal costs but you will pay a success fee to your lawyer. If you win your case base on a DBA, your lawyer will be paid by taking a percentage of the compensation you are awarded.
For certain types of legal cases you may be entitled to claim Legal Aid. This form of state legal funding is run by the Legal Aid Agency. Cuts to this form of government expenditure has reduced the types of cases that benefit from legal aid funding. If you are eligible for this form of funding, the civil legal aid helpline offers free confidential advice on debt and housing, domestic abuse, separating from an abusive partner, a child being taken into care, special education needs, discrimination and some child abduction cases. Criminal legal aid is also available depending on the type of case and where it is heard. Citizens Advice provides detailed advice on the availability of legal aid.
Are you already covered?
An often overlooked form of legal advice is that which is available through insurance policies, professional bodies or trade union membership. It is increasingly common for legal expenses insurance to be included in household or car insurance providing access to free legal advice helplines and paying the costs of legal representation. Check your policy documents to see if you are covered. Membership of professional bodies or trade unions can also include access to free legal advice and representation for certain matters.
Pro bono support
There is a long standing tradition within the legal profession to take on some cases without payment – on a pro bono basis. Free legal assistance from volunteer barristers can be accessed via the Bar Pro Bono Unit and LawWorks also connects people to free legal advice. FRU (Free Representation Unit) facilitates free legal representation in social security and employment hearings.
It is increasingly common for UK law schools to offer free legal advice to members of the public. This provides both a useful public service to their local community and gives law students valuable experience of legal practice. The type of advice available varies but it is usually the case that law students will work to research solutions to legal problems under the supervision of qualified academic staff. More information on how to access this form of advice is available on the LawWorks website. Open Justice, the Open University Law School’s pro bono project, will soon be launching its own online legal advice clinic.
Free advice agencies
There are a large number of advice agencies that offer free legal advice. Citizens Advice provides advice and guidance on a host of legal problems. Law Centres work in local communities offering legal advice, casework and representation and tend to focus on issues such as housing, employment, immigration, debt, and welfare benefits. The Disability Law Service provides free legal advice and representation to people with disabilities. Advicenow is a public facing website that provides advice guides on a range of legal topics to increase awareness of legal rights and responsibilities. ACAS can be a very helpful source of advice on employment issues such as redundancy, holidays, the national minimum wage and zero hours contracts.
There is no legal impediment to representing yourself in a court hearing and increasingly this is a viable option for many people, especially for lower value claims. Being able to represent yourself as a litigant in person is a long established legal right and requires no formal legal training. In fact, given the cuts to other forms of funding for legal advice and representation there has been a marked increase in the number of litigants in person over recent years to the extent that the judiciary have produced a guide for those who represent themselves. The Personal Support Unit (PSU) provides limited support for people representing themselves through the court process.
So, given the decline in state funded support for legal advice and representation, Lord Justice Mathew’s remark still resonates. However, if you do find yourself with a legal problem, there are ways to seek out access legal advice and representation without breaking the bank.
Hugh McFaul and Francine Ryan
The Open Justice Team.
Note that this is post is an edited version of a post that featured on the PUFIN website.