Legal aid is help towards the costs of legal advice and representation, for those who qualify, paid for out of public funds. It is designed to help individuals on low and modest incomes gain access to the legal system.
Legal aid may be free, or someone may have to pay towards the cost of their case, for example through paying a contribution or from the money or property that they win or keep as a result of their legal action. Legal aid is accessed through a solicitor.
There are two main types of legal aid help: advice and assistance and legal aid. Together these are called legal assistance.
Advice and assistance covers a wide range of matters, so long as they are matters of Scots law. It pays for advice from a solicitor but, apart from a few exceptions under assistance by way of representation (ABWOR), it will not cover 'representation' – that is, putting the case in court.
Legal aid provides funding for a solicitor to put the case in court and some tribunals. It covers the preparation work, as well as the hearing itself, and can provide funding for advocates, experts and other costs. (Cases often begin with advice and assistance, and legal aid may be the next step if necessary).
The main types of case that advice and assistance and legal aid can help with are:
- Civil cases – such as divorce and other matters affecting family and children, or actions for compensation after an accident or medical negligence.
- Criminal cases – help, advice and representation for someone charged with a criminal offence or needing advice about a criminal matter.
- Children’s cases - under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which helps to make sure children are protected and supervised. The Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act provides for SLAB to grant children’s legal aid, thereby enabling children to have legal representation at hearings. Legal aid also funds appeals against decisions of children’s hearings.
How does the legal aid system operate in Scotland?
The Scottish Government decides legal aid policy and the Scottish Parliament makes and changes legislation. The Scottish Legal Aid Board manages the legal aid system in Scotland within the scope of our governing legislation and advises Scottish Ministers.
Legal assistance is available from private practice solicitors, law centres and solicitors employed by SLAB in the Public Defence Solicitors' Office for criminal cases and in the Civil Legal Assistance Offices for civil cases. Private practice solicitors are paid on a case by case basis from public money. Employed solicitors are paid a salary as employees of SLAB. The Legal Aid Fund meets the cost of cases and is uncapped. Funded cases must relate to matters of Scots Law.