Many people are aware that there were major changes to the Legal Aid Scheme in 2013 but there is a great deal of confusion as to when and how Legal Aid is available in family matters.
If you are a parent (and in some limited circumstances another relative) involved in Care Proceedings brought by the Local Authority, then you will automatically be entitled to Legal Aid regardless of your circumstances.
Legal Aid may be available in other case involving Social Services but this will usually depend upon an assessment of your financial circumstances (“The MEANS test”) and the strength of your case (“The Merits Test”).
If you are a victim of domestic abuse and are seeking a Non-molestation Order or Occupation Order against your partner, then Legal Aid is available depending on you passing the means and the merits test.
Legal Aid in other family matters including divorce and separation, financial disputes following separation, and disputes about children is available only if you have the appropriate evidence that you have been a victim of domestic abuse or that you are seeking to protect a child from someone who has harmed a child (this applies to disputes regarding children only). Domestic abuse includes physical and emotional abuse as well as controlling behaviour. There is a long list of evidence that will be accepted, including a letter from a doctor or other health worker, a social worker, a report from a domestic violence support worker or the existence of a Non-molestation Order or some actions by the police. There was previously a requirement that the evidence had to be more than 5 years old but this has now been cancelled.
You need to be aware however that if you want to apply for Legal Aid in these areas of law, then you still need to pass the means and merits tests by the Legal Aid Agency. I am often told by clients that they “have Legal Aid” whereas what they mean is they have the required evidence of domestic abuse. Even with such evidence, a client can find that they are ineligible for Legal Aid either because they do not qualify within the financial limits or because there is a legal difficulty in their case.
You do not need to have the written evidence of domestic abuse in order to apply for a Non-molestation Order but the means and merits test will still have to be met.
Legal Aid can be quite a complicated process but our specialist team is able to advise you as to whether you are likely to be eligible and if appropriate, submit the necessary application on your behalf.