Before embarking on a journey of self-representation it is crucial that prospective litigants-in-person investigate ways to get some free legal help, and if possible to allocate a budget to fund at least some professional support.
Check your legal aid eligibility
Although sweeping amendments made to state funding mean that the scope of eligibility is much narrower than it once was, people shouldn’t assume that they don’t qualify for civil legal aid without checking.
There are three tests which must all be met in order to qualify:
- The case type must come within one of the qualifying categories. These include certain family cases with a provable history of domestic violence or where children are at risk of abduction, housing matters that involve unlawful eviction and possession and cases where babies have sustained neurological injuries whilst in the womb or shortly after birth. Legal aid does remain available for issues of mental health, immigration and a number of other categories of case such as special educational needs and breaches of human rights.
- Income and capital assets must not exceed the prescribed threshold.
- Legal opinion must rate the case as having at least a moderate chance of success.
The government has set up a useful online calculator and guidance tool for people to calculate whether their particular legal problem and financial circumstances qualify for legal aid.
Getting free legal advice and services
If you do not qualify for legal aid and are unable to pay for legal costs there are a number of routes to get some free professional help:
- Citizens Advice Bureau is perhaps the largest and best known provider of free, independent and confidential advice on a number of issues such as housing, employment, immigration, debt and consumer matters. Interviews are arranged with an assessor who will work out the best way in which the service can assist you.
- Law Centres offer free legal advice, casework and representation to individuals and groups in their local communities on subjects such as welfare rights, disabilities, employment, housing and community care.
- LawWorks is the operating name of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group and has a network of clinics across the UK offering free legal help and mediation services
- Bar Pro Bono Unit provides free written and verbal legal advice, drafting of documents and representation at hearings. Applications on behalf of individuals must be submitted by a Law Centre, CAB or solicitor and if successful applicants will still have to prepare their own case paperwork and write their own letters.
- The Free Representation Unit provides legal support for people living in London, the Southeast and Nottingham areas who require advice and/or representation at employment, state benefits appeals or criminal injuries compensation tribunal hearings. The FRU website lists over 200 referral agencies that can refer cases for help.
- Trade unions commonly offer both members and their families’ free legal services for a range of matters such as employment, workplace and personal injury disputes, wills and conveyancing. If you or your partner have ever been a member of a trade union its well worth checking with the union’s handbook or website to see if you’re entitled to free legal services.
- Many home insurance policies provide legal expenses cover for a number of disputes, including contracts for goods and services, property and neighbour disputes, employment, personal injury and medical negligence. If you have a policy that includes cover, check its terms to see if there is a maximum limit for costs and the time limit required from the date of the incident to the insurer being informed.
Using a “no win, no fee” solicitor
Instructing a solicitor on a “no win, no-fee” arrangement can offer an affordable and straightforward route to legal representation. Under these arrangements, which are most commonly used in clinical negligence and personal injury disputes, the solicitor receives a higher fee than usual, if the case is successful but no fee if the case is lost.
If you are considering a “no win, no fee” arrangement you must remember that such agreements are legally binding and should be set out in writing. The term “no win, no fee” can be misleading and may wrongly suggest that you have nothing to at all to pay. Make sure that your solicitor fully explains your liability for disbursements, any insurance and your opponent’s costs if your case is unsuccessful. Also check to see if representation at hearings is included and not just initial advice and preparatory work.
Using barristers and solicitors for customised services
In the current market most lawyers recognise the demand for partial services for litigants who do not have the financial resources to pay for full legal representation. Investing a little money in some professional help along the way can be a very cost effective way for litigants-in-person to bolster confidence, gain some support and avoid expensive mistakes.
You could instruct a solicitor or direct access barrister to:
- Assess the merits of your claim and the most favourable way forward
- Provide an opinion on the evidence you’re proposing to adduce in support of your case
- Oversee your case preparation, trial bundle and compliance with your duty of disclosure
- Draft legal documents such as particulars of claim, defence or witness statements
- Accompany you to mediation sessions or represent you at a hearing
- Advise you of suitable questions to ask witnesses and how to conduct yourself at a hearing
Costs awarded to litigants-in-person
If you successfully win a case that involves a dispute valued over £10,000 (allocated as fast or multi-track), the usual rule is that your opponent will have to pay your costs in addition to their own. This should include any reasonable costs for professional advice on the merits, presentation and preparation of your case. As a litigant-in-person you are also entitled to claim for the work you have done in preparing your own case. providing it is the kind that a lawyer would have been able to charge for if you had been represented. The amount you can claim will depend on whether you can provide the court with evidence of your proven financial loss. This includes things like loss of business for the self-employed or unpaid leave taken from work. If this is the case you will get two-thirds of the amount that would have been charged by a lawyer. If you are unable to prove financial loss the court will grant you an hourly rate (currently £18) for the time that you’ve reasonably spent in preparing your case.
For smaller value cases brought in the small claims court awards are only usually granted for fixed costs, meaning those incurred in court fees or expert and witness expenses.