Today I received an application from an individual who was roughly £18 per month too wealthy to qualify for legal aid. She was seeking assistance with a homelessness application – one aspect of housing law still in scope.
The debate about the cuts to legal aid has largely focused on the areas to be removed from scope, but there is still (and has always been) the issue of financial eligibility. We have always had a good number of applications from people who are about £10 too wealthy to qualify for legal aid. It is always a group for which I have had much sympathy. What are they supposed to do?
Clearly they cannot use their £10 per month to pay for a lawyer. But I suppose that is an inevitable problem with drawing a line. This is an issue that LawWorks is struggling with at the moment. So far, we have been able to get by with a flexible approach to assessing financial eligibility for our service. We assess each case individually.
We might accept an application from an individual with considerable savings if that individual is unemployed and caring for a disabled child, but not if they were employed, single and without dependants. Until now we have had the resources to be able to look carefully at each case in this way. But this takes time. With the increasing number of applications we are forced to look at ways of being more efficient with our resources.
Should pro bono organisations have a threshold salary amount above which an individual cannot be eligible for assistance? If so, what should that amount be? What about savings? If you were going to give up your time to do a pro bono case is there an amount that you think would not be acceptable in any circumstances?
There is extensive research on minimum income standards in the UK. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that single people in the UK need to earn at least £16,850 a year before tax in 2013 for a minimum acceptable living standard. Should the threshold for free legal services be somewhere around there?
Again, the trouble with drawing a line is that it has to be drawn somewhere. The value of having a threshold is diminished if an expectation is made in cases which are close to the borderline. Equally, I know I would hate to be in the position of having to write a letter to an applicant stating that they are £10 too wealthy to qualify for our service.
Lia Moses is a caseworker at LawWorks, a national charity working with solicitors to support, promote and encourage a commitment to pro bono across the profession