Does free legal help still exist?

Judith Thompson

In the past, legal aid was available to support clients in a range of cases. Now legal aid is only available for a handful of case types, such as cases involving domestic violence, mental health, and immigration or asylum.

People's need for legal assistance has not changed, and in many cases, people cannot afford to pay for lawyer's fees up front. This is why there are now such a range of different options available for clients, to help them with legal funding.

Some free legal advice can be obtained from Citizens' Advice Bureaux, and many law firms will provide some free initial legal advice over the telephone. However, this type of help tends to be in the initial stages only, and will not help later on, when litigation becomes more complex.

If you need to start a claim in court, usually you will need to pay a court fee. However, if you are on benefits or have a low income, you may qualify for the "help with fees" scheme which can mean that your court fees can be reduced, or you will not have to pay them at all.

Once you have got over the hurdle of starting a claim, there is likely to be a time when you will need help with proceedings.

Since the 1970s, people have been able to bring someone else, usually a friend or family member, along to court with them, to represent them on the day. This type of representation is often referred to as a "McKenzie friend". McKenzie friends have come into the firing line in recent years, as some have started to charge fees to clients, and without any legal training, there are examples of where they have made situations much worse for the person they are supposed to be helping. Plans are afoot to ban McKenzie friends from charging fees, and to make them sign up to a code of conduct.

Conditional fee agreements, also known as "no win no fee" agreements, were available for many types of litigation cases for a number of years, following the demise of legal aid. However, in recent years, due to changes in the law, these have become far less attractive and far more expensive for clients. There are a couple of exceptions where no win no fee arrangements can still be effective for clients, such as libel and slander cases. No win no fee arrangements certainly can help clients with strong cases and no ready cash. However, this method of funding is usually more expensive for clients in the long run.

If you own your own home and have buildings and contents insurance, it is possible that you would also have some form of insurance to cover your legal exoenses. This goes by different names in different insurance policies, and we are happy to check your policy for you if you want to know whether you have this type of insurance.

Another option is deferring legal fees until the end of a matter. This is often appropriate in cases involving disputes about property or wills and inheritance, but not all firms will work on this basis. At Samuels Solicitors, we very often will agree to defer our fees until the end of a matter, if the circumstances will allow it.

Commercial litigation funders are investors who will agree to fund your claim, in exchange for a cut of your damages. This can be very effective if you have a large claim, but for smaller claims it is not appropriate. This type of arrangement can help if you cannot manage to pay legal fees yourself, but you would end up losing some of your damages.

If you have a strong case, come and talk to us about how we can help you. You can contact us today for a free, no obligation discussion.