Following on with Lawyer Monthly’s series on law school and careers we talk money and fees. Below Francine Ryan, lecturer in law and member of the Open Justice team at the Open University, discusses several options for hiring legal aid, how lawyers generally operate, and what avenues of support are available to the public.
Recent research found fees for partners at top London law firms is now as high as £1000 per hour, with average hourly rates for senior staff outside the capital exceeding £200. These fees are clearly unaffordable for many but there are alternative ways of accessing legal advice and representation without paying the top hourly rates:
Hourly rates for partners at London law firms are out of reach for most individuals but that does not mean instructing a law firm is prohibitive. Law firms offer a range of flexible funding arrangements, including fixed fees or working within a budget. In addition, there are two types of conditional fee agreements (CFA) or damages based agreements (DBA) often referred to as ‘no win, no fee’ cases, under both agreements there is no liability for costs in the event the case is unsuccessful. If the case is successful under a CFA the solicitor is paid their costs plus a success fee which will be a fixed percentage uplift, whereas under a DBA, also known as a contingency fee agreement, the solicitor receives their costs plus a percentage of the compensation awarded. The Solicitors Regulation Authority provides more information on these types of fee arrangements.
Legal aid is run by the Legal Aid Agency, funding is available for certain types of cases. Cuts to legal aid have been made since 2012 and have had a particular impact on civil cases. The civil legal aid helpline offers free confidential advice on debt and housing (if your home is at risk), domestic abuse, separating from an abusive partner, a child being taken into care, special education needs, discrimination and some child abduction cases. Criminal legal aid is also available depending on the type of case and where it is heard. Citizens Advice provides detailed advice on the availability of legal aid.
Legal expenses insurance
Legal expenses insurance is often included in household or car insurance providing access to free legal advice helplines and paying the costs of legal representation. Check your policy documents to see if you are covered.
Trade Union membership
Membership of a trade union often includes free legal advice and representation. Subject to meeting certain conditions the trade union will pay legal costs and disbursements for matters they are prepared to fund.
Pro bono support
Some lawyers will agree to represent a client without charge on a pro bono basis. Free legal assistance from volunteer barristers is provided by the charity, the Bar Pro Bono Unit and LawWorks connects people to free legal advice. FRU (Free Representation Unit) provides free legal representation in social security and employment hearings.
Many law schools offer free legal advice through a law clinic. Clinics vary in the service they offer- some replicate a law firm by offering a full legal service under the supervision of qualified practitioners, whilst others provide initial advice and signposting to other legal services. Some clinics may cover a number of different areas of law while others will specialise in one or two areas, for example social welfare or employment law. Law schools can register their clinic with LawWorks or details of the clinic can be found on the law school website.
CrowdJustice is a funding platform that provides an opportunity to build a community to raise funds to support a legal case. The People’s Challenge to the Government regarding Brexit raised £170,550 and Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association (JENGbA) raised over £10,000 to allow them to successfully intervene in the Supreme Court case of R v Jogee  UKSC.
Advice agencies offer a wide range of support to those who cannot afford or eligible for free legal representation. Citizens Advice provides advice and guidance on a host of legal problems. Advice is provided online, by telephone or in a person at a local Citizens Advice. Law Centres work in local communities offering legal advice, casework and representation. The Disability Law Service provides free legal advice and representation to people with disabilities. The Personal Support Unit (PSU) supports people representing themselves through the court process. Advicenow is a public facing website that provides advice guides on a range of legal topics to increase awareness of legal rights and responsibilities.
So, although instructing a lawyer can be expensive, there are alternatives to paying the top hourly rates. It is important for consumers to shop around and negotiate the best rate and it is still possible to access legal advice at little or no cost.