Solicitors have a reputation for being expensive and most charge between £100 and £500 an hour. The total bill can be hard to predict: unexpected complications during your case will take up more of the solicitor’s time and cost you more cash. So are there any sources of free legal advice? And how can you lawyer for less and protect yourself against hefty legal fees if you need a solicitor in future?
- Legal Aid – free or low cost legal advice for some cases
- Free legal advice over the telephone
- Free advice from union lawyers
- Do it yourself – cheap wills and tenancy agreements
- Low cost lawyers on the high street
- Check your insurance policies
- Contact the Citizens Advice Bureau for free legal advice
- Get low cost legal advice through mediation
- Get free legal advice by social networking
If you are in prison for a criminal offence, and there is a chance you could be imprisoned, then you may be eligible for Legal Aid. In the Magistrates court, you will need to take what is known as a ‘means test’ to see whether or not you could afford to pay for your own solicitor. This will be done automatically.
Anyone on unemployment benefits aged under 16, or aged 16 or 17 with no income and still living with parents or guardians, automatically passes the means test.
Anyone who is in court may be granted legal aid, but if the court believes you could have paid your own solicitor, they will issue an order requiring you to repay the cost.
If you have a civil (non criminal) case, it will be up to you to find out if you are eligible for legal aid. Many people get legal aid for civil cases such as divorce proceedings, but there are a few situations you may find yourself in, such as attending the Employment Tribunal or Immigration Tribunal, which are rarely covered by legal aid, even if you don’t have much money.
In most cases, you will not be able to get legal aid for civil cases if you earn more than £2,435 a month, or have more than £8,000 in savings. There are some exceptions, however, such as mental health cases.
The best thing to do is to ring the Community Legal Service and arrange to see an advisor. You can call them on 0845 3454345 or visit www.clsdirect.org.uk. In Scotland, you can call 0131 2267061 or visit http://www.slab.org.uk and in Northern Ireland, you can call 028 9040 8888 or visit http://www.nilsc.org.uk.
If you are on income or benefits you may be able to get free legal advice over the telephone from Community Legal Advice. Community Legal Advice (CLA) is a free telephone advice service paid for by legal aid, covering issues such as benefits and tax credits, debt, housing, employment and family problems.
As the rules on what the CLA covers are so complicated, it’s always worth checking to see if they can help you. You can call 0845 345 4 345, or if you want to avoid using a premium-rate number, call 01204 771376 or visit the website and request a call back. If it’s easier, you can send a message to [email protected] There are also a number of Community Law Centres around the UK; see if there’s one near you.
We’ve all seen the adverts that start ‘Have you had an accident an work?’ These legal firms offer what are officially known as ‘conditional fee agreements’. They claim that you will not have to pay a penny in legal costs unless you are successful in your case, and if you do win, the legal costs will be paid by the other side.
However, here at Moneymagpie, we think there is a lot that goes unmentioned in these adverts. For example, if you lose your case, who pays other side’s legal fees, the court fees, and the fee charged by any expert (such as a doctor providing a report) and other expenses (such as photocopying, postage and travel)? We spoke to Neil Drake of the National Accident Helpline, who told us that if you lose your case, you will not have to pay these expenses, however, at the start of your cases, you will have to take out an insurance policy to protect you against these costs. So make sure you press your solicitor to tell you how much this policy will cost before you commit to using their services.
It’s important to be aware that ‘No Win No Fee’ solicitors only take on cases they think will be successful, which will mean they get paid. As a result, you can expect to have the merits of your case examined first by a telephone advisor, then by specialist solicitors, who will carry out their own investigations into the strength of the case. Be prepared – make sure you have all the information you need to hand, so you don’t forget to mention anything which might strengthen your case. And if a ‘No Win No Fee’ solicitor turns down your case, this doesn’t mean you can’t look for legal help elsewhere.
Anyone who is a member of a trade union may find that their union can offer them free legal advice. The amount of legal cover offered varies from union to union.
Unison, for example, covers you for accidents at work and accidents outside work such as road traffic accidents or accidents while on holiday. You can also get 30 minutes free legal advice on any subject, excluding inheritance tax or a case you are already involved in. Unison offer free legal representation if you are convicted of a crime arising from your work, or if you face disqualification from driving, and this could affect your job.
If you are in a profession with a choice of unions (for example teachers can join the NUT, NASUWT or the ATL), compare the legal benefits on offer before you sign up to one.
If your sole reason for joining a union is legal cover, you may be better off just getting a legal insurance policy, as it may cover you for a wider range of circumstances in which you might need a lawyer.
If you have a problem at work – perhaps you’re going through a redundancy process or you’re being bullied – do speak to your union as soon as possible. They may well be able to sort out your problem in the workplace through negotiation with your employer without ever having to go to court, which of course would save a bundle of money.
A spokesman for the TUC said: “Sometimes reps or officers are perfectly capable of giving good advice, even though it may not be legal advice.
“Employees often don’t see the distinction and think they need legal advice when what they really need is professional employment relations advice.”
Not all unions will give you support in taking a case to court, and there are often conditions attached, but most will give some initial advice. This may come from the union’s in-house solicitor, or the union will have built up a relationship with a firm of solicitors specialising in workplace disputes. The good news is that any solicitor your union works with is likely to be an expert in workplace disputes.
If you need a lawyer to produce a relatively straightforward document, such as a will or tenancy agreement, you could try the DIY approach and buy a kit online.
These kits are quite controversial and not for everyone. The Law Society advises against using online kits, because if you see a solicitor, they are required by law to be insured. There is an ombudsman you can complain to if things go wrong, and a compensation fund which pays out to people who are affected by poor legal service. These regulations do not apply to the DIY approach.
In the case of wills, the Law Society warns: “”If anything is wrong in your will it leaves an enormous headache for those left behind.” They also point out that a solicitor can advise you on tax issues, so they may actually end up saving you money and increasing the amount you can pass on to those you leave behind.
We think this is good advice if you have a house, an estate that could be subject to inheritance tax, offspring from multiple marriages, your own company or if you want to put money in trust.
Although wills are considered simple documents, there are lots of problems you could run into. For example, you cannot leave half your house to your spouse, half to a child from a former marriage, if the house deed says you and your spouse are ‘joint tenants’. You must be ‘tenants in common’. This is just one example of the sort of mistake which could end up costing thousands of pounds in legal fees after your death.
However, we think online kits can work well for tenancy agreements, or for the wills of individuals who have few possessions- say a childless individual who owns a car, but not their own home, who just wants to be really organised.
Make sure you buy the kit from a reputable stockist, such as Lawpack, who offer Last Will and Testament kits at £9.99.
Lawpack even offers divorce documents at £65, but bear in mind you will still need to pay additional fees, such as around £340 in court fees and £45 to obtain the final decree absolute certificate. Unless you have few possessions, and the divorce is 100% amicable, it’s best to see a solicitor.
From October, under the Legal Services Act 2007, lawyers will be able to operate from high street shops such as WH Smith and supermarkets such as Tesco. One firm, Quality Solicitors, is currently working to place qualified solicitors in WH Smith, and will start their launch on August 1st 2011.
They say the benefits will include the ability to ‘pop in’ to the store instead of making an appointment, a free initial consultation, and a potentially cheaper service because the solicitor’s overheads will be lower. However, some traditional law firms already offer free consultations, and it remains to be seen whether high street law services will offer better value or service.
This could be a good compromise for straightforward documents such as wills. This is because you’ll get to speak to a solicitor face to face to make sure there are no complexities involved, but if it turns out to be quite a simple matter, your document will be outsourced to a bulk document production centre, lowering costs.
Many car, home and medical insurance policies provide some level of cover for legal fees. Sometimes this is automatically included, sometimes it is sold as part of a bundle- for example you might pay an extra £20 a year for legal cover.
Liz Forster of the Association of British Insurers has this advice: “If you’re offered ‘bolt on’ insurance, always read the policy carefully. Look at the types of circumstances where cover would or wouldn’t be provided. These can include personal injury, consumer complaints, home rights, employment, criminal prosecution, taxation and motor claims.
Policies usually provide cover for legal fees up to £50,000 although this varies; some provide cover up to £100,000. Make sure this meets your expectations before signing up to anything.”
If you are worried about ending up in specific legal situations, you can get what is known as ‘before the event’ legal cover. It’s pretty unromantic, but you can even insurance yourself against the cost of a divorce when you get married.
Before signing up to a policy, there are a few questions you may want to ask. For example, will you be able to appoint a solicitor if your choice, or will the insurance company nominate the solicitor? Will you have access to a local solicitor you can see face to face, or could the insurer appoint a solicitor based hundreds of miles away? Will the insurance company pay the solicitors directly, or will you have to pay and claim it back?
These insurers will often negotiate with your solicitor on your behalf to get a lower hourly rate- such as £140 per hour instead of £160 per hour- making the amount you can claim stretch further.
The Citizen’s Advice Bureau are a little like the A-team. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can get through on the telephone, then maybe you can benefit from the CAB’s services.
The CAB can advise on a wide range of issues, from debt, to consumer complaints, to problems with your neighbours. Visit their website to find your local bureau.
If you have a dispute, whether it is with an employer, a contractor, a family member or a landlord, you could try mediation. Meditation involves meeting with the person or people you have a dispute with, with a qualified solicitor in the room to help you reach a mutually beneficial agreement.
This is a good option, because the solicitor can give you lots of information about the legal position of both sides, and also the likely outcome if the case will go to court. Armed with these facts, many people decide to settle out of court. This is generally a lot cheaper than taking a case to court.
So how do you find a mediator? Well, you need to make sure the solicitor you appoint is an accredited mediator, registered with the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution. As long as you are sure of this fact, there is nothing to stop you shopping around. We’ve seen fees for mediation ranging from £545 a day to £4,000 a day, depending on the level of experience of the solicitor, and whether they are sole traders, or if they must pay a portion of their fee to a larger company that employs them.
The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution offers its own mediation service and will also recommend mediators in your area.
This only really works if you have a single legal question and need a quick answer from a reputable source. However, it is free, and worth a try. Hundreds of solicitors and law firms are on Twitter these days, and if you post a question to their feed, and make it clear it’s a quick question, they may be able to help.