How to get legal aid for a family law problem

If you have a legal problem, you may be able to get help to pay for legal advice. Here we explain what help you may be able to get if you have a family problem – that’s a problem to do with things like domestic abuse, sorting out who your children are going to live with if you separate or how often you’ll see them, sorting out your finances, getting a divorce, or ending a civil partnership. It will help you understand what legal aid is, when it is available and who can get it.
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Introduction

If you have a family law problem, it is likely that you will be going through a stressful time. It is very important to get legal advice, if you can. You may find you can get legal aid to pay for the help you need from a solicitor. Finding out if you can get legal aid is really worth the effort involved. Otherwise, you will need to either pay for legal advice or try to deal with the problem yourself.

Here we explain what help you may be able to get if you have a family law problem, and how to find a solicitor who can support you through this time. A solicitor who specialises in family law is an expert in problems like divorce, domestic abuse, arrangements for your children, and sorting out your finances on divorce.

This guide will help you understand:

  • what legal aid is,
  • when it is available, and
  • how to apply for it.


In this guide we use the word ‘ex’ to mean your ex-husband, ex-wife, ex- civil partner or ex-partner. You might already have separated from them or you might be separating from them now. 

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April 2020 
What is legal aid?

Legal aid is a government scheme to help you to pay for family mediation, legal advice, and representation at court. Since the law changed in 2013 it has become harder to get legal aid, but some people still can. Whether or not you can get legal aid depends on:

  • what legal problem you have,
  • how much money you earn, or receive, in benefits,
  • any property you own, and,
  • how good your case is (a solicitor can help you work this out).
Step 1: Check if there is legal aid for your particular legal problem

You can only get legal aid for certain kinds of problems. You may be able to get legal aid if:

  • You want to go to mediation to help sort out problems with your ex such as arrangements for your children, or your finances when you separate.
  • You want to get a court order to protect you from your ex or another family member who is abusive to you. This type of order is often called an injunction or a non-molestation order. You might also need an order that says the abusive person can’t come to where you live for a certain amount of time. This is called an occupation order.
  • You have suffered or are likely to suffer domestic abuse from your ex and you want legal advice about your divorce or the dissolution of your civil partnership, sorting out your finances, or the arrangements for your children. You will need evidence of domestic abuse - see step 2 below.
  • Your case involves a child (for example, perhaps you are trying to make arrangements about who your child should live with) and that child is at risk of abuse from the person involved in the case (for example, your ex). You will need to provide evidence of child abuse - see step 2 below.
  • You are at risk of being forced to marry against your will and you want advice about applying for a court order to stop this.
  • Social services are involved in the care, supervision or protection of your children. (In cases where social services apply to the court for an order about your child you will automatically get legal aid if you have parental responsibility for them.)
  • Your child has been taken out of the UK without your permission or you are trying to stop someone from taking your child out of the UK without your permission.
  • Your child has been taken without your permission to somewhere else within the UK.
  • You are trying to make sure that international or European agreements about your children or maintenance agreements are put in place.

 

Other family problems

These are not the only family problems you may be able to get legal aid for, but they are the most common. Be sure to ask a solicitor who specialises in family law to check if your legal problem is covered under legal aid.

Exceptional Case Funding

In very rare circumstances you may be able to get something called Exceptional Case Funding. It is only available to people who have a good case, a low income and who otherwise won’t get to benefit from their human or European Union rights. For more information about exceptional funding and how to apply for it, look at the Public Law Project’s guide to Exceptional Case Funding. Beware that applying for this special type of funding is not at all easy and ideally you really need to try and find a family law solicitor who does legal aid work to help you apply.

Step 2: What to do if you have experienced domestic abuse and need to get evidence

If you or your child have experienced abuse or are at risk of domestic abuse and you want legal aid to apply for an order to protect you from the person abusing you, you don't need to get evidence of the abuse to apply for legal aid - skip this section and go to Step 3.

If you or your child haven’t experienced abuse and are not at risk of domestic abuse you don’t need to read this bit - skip this section and go to Step 3.

What counts as domestic abuse?

Domestic abuse in relationships (and among family members) is common. Domestic abuse is behaviour, usually by a partner or ex-partner, (but also by a family member or carer), that is controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading or violent. It can affect anyone – whatever your gender or sexuality.

Abuse can take many different forms - it doesn’t just mean physical violence. It can be:

  • emotional,

  • financial or economical,

  •  physical,

  • sexual.

If you think you may have been or may be a victim of domestic abuse a good place to start looking for information, help and support is in our Top Picks. Just search Domestic violence in our search box and the best information available online will come up. 

If you have experienced domestic abuse from your ex (or another family member) you may be able to get legal aid to pay for advice about your separation or your children, as long as you are on a low income.

Unfortunately, when it comes to getting legal aid, your word about what you have suffered is not enough. The law says that you need evidence to prove what you have been through. There are complicated rules about what the government accepts as evidence but a solicitor can explain these to you. You will need to find a solicitor who specialises in family law and who does legal aid work. Don’t worry - we explain more about that later.

A solicitor will need information about your problem, your financial situation, and the abuse you have experienced from the other person involved before they can decide if you should apply for legal aid with their help. When you have worked this out with the solicitor, you then need to provide all your evidence for your application. The solicitor should be able to tell you what evidence they need from you, and how to go about getting it.

Examples of evidence

There is a long list of different documents that count as evidence. Here are just a few examples:

  • a letter from a health professional stating that you have injuries or a condition that is consistent with being a victim of domestic abuse,
  • a letter from an independent domestic violence advisor (IDVA) stating that they are supporting you,
  • a letter from your housing association or local council (who is your landlord) stating that they believe you are at risk of domestic abuse or have been a victim of domestic abuse,
  • a letter from the police stating that your ex has been arrested for a domestic abuse incident and that you were the victim.

To see a list of all the documents that are accepted as evidence you can look at the website for the charity Rights of Women where there is a useful list called Domestic violence gateway evidence.

The solicitor you speak to may say that you need to write to whoever you think you can get evidence from to request it. Or, they may help you do this. If you need them, there are sample letters for requesting evidence that you can use in the Legal Aid section of the gov.uk website.

Go down to the bit called ‘How to get evidence’. Choose the first link if you need evidence about what abuse has happened to you or choose the second link for evidence about your child. These links take you to a new page with lots of sample letters to choose from.  This may feel overwhelming but don’t worry. You only need one piece of evidence.

You need to choose a sample letter that you think applies most to your situation. Also think about which will be the easiest to get - in terms of time and cost. For example it can take a long time to get information from the police or the court but this should be free whereas your GP may charge you for a letter. If you already have a domestic abuse support worker able to give you evidence they might be the quickest and cheapest (free) option for you. It can take some time to work out what evidence you can get, request it from the right place and then get it to a solicitor. Be patient but persistent!

Step 3: Check if you are financially entitled to legal aid

To get legal aid you must be on a low income and have little in the way of savings, or other assets such as property or valuable items. If you have a new partner (not the one you are separating from or are separated from and need advice about) their income counts too when working out if you can get legal aid.

You can get an idea of whether or not you can get legal aid by using this online tool: Check if you can get legal aid. But, it is best to see a solicitor to check. 

There are strict limits on the amount of income or savings you can have if you want to apply for legal aid. A solicitor can explain these and work out if you can get legal aid. If your case is about domestic abuse you may be able to get legal aid even if you go over the income or savings limits but you are likely to have to pay a monthly contribution if you are in this situation. 

Step 4 tells you what financial evidence you need to get together before going to see a solicitor.

Step 4: Get a solicitor and apply for legal aid

You can only apply for legal aid through a solicitor. It is really important to find a solicitor that specialises in family law. The best place to start is by looking at Resolution. Resolution is the leading organisation for family lawyers who believe in a constructive, non-confrontational approach to family problems. You can search for a family law solicitor in your area. Only certain firms of solicitors do legal aid work now. If you look on the Resolution site you can see which solicitors near you do legal aid - look for the green tick next to their name.

If the solicitor you contact says your legal problem isn’t covered by legal aid, it’s worth asking another solicitor for their view. The rules about what solicitors can and can’t advise on under legal aid are really quite complicated and there is a risk, because of this, that you get incorrect advice. So, it's important that you speak to a solicitor who specialises in the particular problem you want help with.

Booking your appointment

When you book your appointment with a solicitor to see if you can get legal aid you should be told exactly what you need to take. You will need to take proof of ID and proof of your address. To show what your financial situation is you will usually need some or all of the following:  

  • Bank statements for all bank accounts you have (in your own name and with anyone else) for the last three months,
  • Pay slips for the last three months,
  • An up to date letter setting out what benefits you get (this may mean several letters),
  • Evidence about the rent or mortgage you pay - if this isn’t clear from your bank statements,
  • Evidence about what you pay out in childcare, - again, if this isn’t clear from your bank statements,
  • Evidence about what you pay out in maintenance or receive as maintenance, - again, if this isn’t clear from your bank statements.

The solicitor will work out if you can get legal aid for your particular problem and make sure they have all your evidence so that they can apply for legal aid for you.  The rules about all the financial evidence you need to apply for legal aid are very strict. Without the right evidence the solicitor will not be able to help you get legal aid. So, it is really important to get everything the solicitor asks for, as quickly as you can. The solicitor can only start work for you under legal aid once they get a letter from the government saying you are entitled to legal aid.

Be aware that if you do get legal aid, it might not cover all the costs of your case. Depending on your financial circumstances you may need to:

  • Pay some of the costs upfront. This could be out of your income each month or from any savings you have.
  • Pay back some of the costs at the end of your case if you get money or property from your case.
Step 5: How to find a solicitor if you can’t get legal aid

If you can’t get legal aid you will either need find the money to pay for your legal costs or you will need to handle the problem yourself. If you decide you can find some money to pay to see a solicitor, read on for our three top tips about how to find a good one:

Our three top tips for finding a solicitor

  1. Go to the Resolution website for a good family law solicitor or follow up on a recommendation from a friend or relative. Another way to see if a firm of solicitors is well run and gives good client care is to see if it has been awarded the Law Society’s quality mark - Lexcel. If a firm has this, it should tell you by advertising it on its website and in its offices.
  2. Phone around different firms and ask some questions about how they charge. Many firms charge by an hourly rate. Other firms will do particular bits of work for a set amount - often called fixed fee work or ‘pay as you go’. Some firms will offer a first appointment, for a fixed fee. Some firms might give you a very short initial appointment for free - say for 20 minutes or half an hour. If you then want the solicitor to do more work for you, many firms will expect you to pay a chunk of money up front - often called money on account. Sometimes you might be able to negotiate how you pay your bill. For example you could ask pay a set amount each month, like a direct debit for your gas or water bill, until all the costs are paid off.
  3. Be prepared - the more you prepare before you meet your solicitor, the more you'll get out of it. Make a list of the main things you need to tell them or the questions you have. Get together any paperwork that might be useful and put it in order. This will make it quicker and easier for the solicitor to understand your problem and give you helpful advice. For more helpful tips on seeing a solicitor take a look at How to prepare for seeing a solicitor or adviser.
Step 6: If you are still stuck

If you can’t get legal aid and you can’t afford to pay a solicitor don’t give up! There are other places you can go for help, depending on what your problem is about.

If you can’t agree with your ex on how to work out your finances or arrangements for your children when you separate or divorce then these guides can help:

As you go through these guides, you will see places where we suggest you get some legal advice if you can possibly afford it. We only do this when we think it will be really useful. We have teamed up with Resolution to provide a panel of family law solicitors that can help you at the most important points of your family case for a reduced, fixed fee. We set out clearly what the solicitor can advise you on and how much it will cost you. There are no hidden extras. Have a look at Getting affordable advice from a family solicitor from Advicenow for more information on how it works.

If you have a different problem start by looking at our Help with Family Problems section where you will find lots of step by step guides on different family law issues.

You can also look at our Help Directory. Go to the section called Family problems to see where you might be able to get free legal advice from. Go to the section called Representing yourself at court or tribunal for information on how you might be able to get a lawyer to represent you for free.

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Helpful overview

Clear guide to legal aid, very helpful!

on the 28 / 02 / 2020

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