‘Legal aid is fundamental to a fair justice system and underpins the rule of law. It ensures equality of arms, so that people can access justice and enforce their legal rights. Means testing is a crucial component of the justice system as it ensures those on lower incomes receive help with paying their legal costs, and that those who can afford to contribute towards their legal costs do so.
The Government has today published its response to the consultation which reviewed the entire system of legal aid means testing. The comprehensive suite of changes we will now be implementing to civil and criminal legal aid means tests will significantly widen eligibility for legal aid and ensure continued access to justice.
Changes we will be making include:
- Increasing income and capital thresholds for legal aid eligibility, so they better reflect essential living costs and different household compositions. This means that 3.5 million more people will be eligible for criminal legal aid in the magistrates’ court and 2.5 million more people will be eligible for civil legal aid;
- Introducing a £500 per month earnings threshold for applicants in receipt of Universal Credit. If exceeded, applicants will need to complete a full income assessment in the same manner as applicants not in receipt of benefits. This replaces the interim position adopted in 2013, when Universal Credit roll out began. This policy is designed to deliver fair eligibility according to applicants’ means, regardless of the source of those means;
- Removing the upper income threshold for legal aid at the Crown Court, meaning that all Crown Court defendants will be eligible for legal aid. Those on higher incomes will be asked to pay more towards to their legal aid, ensuring taxpayer resources are directed at those most in need;
- Excluding assets such as the family home from the means test where they are the subject matter of the case or where coercive control has denied applicants use of their shared marital assets, making it easier for domestic abuse victims to access legal aid;
- Removing the means test for three areas of civil legal aid: civil representation for under-18s, civil representation for parents or those with parental responsibility facing the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment from their child, and legal help for inquests involving a potential breach of rights under the ECHR (within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998) or where there is likely to be a significant wider public interest in the individual being represented at the inquest.
The MTR will be implemented in phases. Phase 1 will deliver changes to non-means tested areas. The rest of the new civil means test will be implemented in phase 2, followed by the new criminal means tests in phases 3 and 4. Changes to the regulations will be laid in 2023/24, coming into force in 2025. This timeframe allows digital build and testing of the new assessments by the legal aid agency and legal aid providers.
This has been an open and collaborative review and we are grateful for the invaluable contribution of a wide range of interested parties throughout the consultation period and during the course of the review.’