Our ‘legal doctor’ Robert Botkai discusses legal aid. What exactly is it, who can claim it and how does it work? 

FT - Robert Botkai partner Winckworth Sherwood

Since Clement Atlee’s government in 1954, legal aid has been available to those involved in legal proceedings and who do not have the funds to cover the costs.

I spent the first 12 months of my legal career (long after 1954) doing almost exclusively legal aid work, acting for those involved in accidents or making claims following injury.

Legal aid has recently hit the news in the midst of the criminal barristers’ strike. Criminal cases continue to be halted for days while barristers take to the picket lines, wigs, gowns and all, to stand for a 25% pay increase. While the headlines focused on the strike action, it may also have raised queries about legal aid for those who have been in the fortunate position not to have used it.

Petrol retailers may come across scenarios where they, or their staff, are accused of a criminal act or perhaps they or a member of their family suffers an injury. A working knowledge of legal aid may be helpful in such a scenario.

What is legal aid?

Legal aid is a source of government funding available to people who otherwise would not be able to afford legal advice or a solicitor to represent them in court and is administered by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). It is a common misconception that legal aid is only available for those involved in criminal cases. While this is one of its key uses, it is also available for civil cases. For instance, legal aid would be available for civil cases relating to:

* Asylum

* Housing debt

* Discrimination

* Welfare benefits

* Family law mediation

* Some cases of clinical negligence affecting children.

Notably, many areas of civil law have been removed from the scope of legal aid. For instance, family law cases may only be eligible for legal aid where they involve domestic violence or child protection matters. Immigration cases will only be eligible where they involve an asylum claim. Housing claims will only be considered where there is a threat of homelessness.

Who is eligible?

Most applicants’ finances are means tested to assess whether they can meet the costs of the proceedings. There are exceptions for care and mental health tribunal cases. In civil cases the applicant’s capital is considered. In criminal cases, only the applicant’s disposable income will be considered.

Some legal advice continues to be free. For instance, there is no charge for legal advice at a police station for an arrested person. Some solicitors offer their work for free (this is known as ‘pro bono’) through legal charities. The Citizens’ Advice Bureau also provides free advice on legal issues.

How are the lawyers paid?

Legal aid fees can be complex. Space does not allow for a detailed analysis as fees vary depending on the nature of the work. Broadly, a solicitor attending at a police station will receive in the region of £50 per hour. There is an uplift to £63 for unsocial hours and an £8 uplift for serious offences. However, there are numerous variations on this depending on the case. Also this is not £50 in the pocket of the solicitor. Most solicitors work in a legal practice.

The LAA pays the fees of the lawyers working on legal aid cases but only for the time they think it should take, not the time it actually takes. In many cases, barristers’ fees have been switched to being fixed rather than hourly. This can mean no allowance for reading in, waiting or travel.

Funding has gradually been cut. The median salary of a criminal barrister in 2019-20 was £79,800, but junior barristers reportedly earn a fraction of this in their first three years of practice.

As a result of continued criticism of the system, legal aid underwent an independent review in 2021. Consequently, the government proposed a 15% increase for work in magistrates’ courts and police stations. This has led to the industrial action as it will not take effect immediately, would not apply to backlogged cases and because the pay rise fails to meet the 28% decrease in pay since 2006.


Legal aid is far from perfect. There remains a significant category of the population who would not satisfy the means test but in practise cannot afford to pay legal fees. However, legal aid has benefited many thousands of people. In the criminal arena it makes it less likely that there will be a miscarriage of justice. In civil cases, my view is that legal aid has enabled individuals and groups of people to tackle huge, well-funded organisations such as drugs and tobacco companies and so brings about real change. Much of my legal experience was in acting for workers who had suffered deafness following exposure to noise in the steel industry. Legal aid enabled them to seek compensation. Legal aid is a force for good. If pay is unrealistically low, even the best motivated lawyers will be forced to work in more lucrative areas of law.


I would very much welcome feedback and suggestions on these issues or any areas you would like me to cover in future articles.