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There are three civil legal aid schemes in operation in the United Kingdom, each regulated by a different body depending on the jurisdiction:

  • The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) in England and Wales
  • The Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB)
  • The Legal Services Agency Northern Ireland (LSANI)

In recent years there has been new legislation passed in each jurisdiction which has made changes to the criteria of the legal aid schemes and the eligibility of individuals applying for civil legal aid.

The biggest changes have occurred in England and Wales where the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) made significant changes to the operation of the civil legal aid scheme, both reducing the scope of civil legal aid and changing the financial eligibility criteria.

In Northern Ireland, the Legal Services Agency (LSANI) was created in 2015 under the Legal Aid and Coroners’ Courts Act (Northern Ireland) 2014, and now serves as an agency of the Department of Justice.

Reforms to legal aid in Scotland have mainly focused on criminal legal aid, but some changes have been made to the financial criteria in relation to civil legal aid.

Means testing is common to all three schemes, and examines the financial eligibility of a person applying for civil legal aid. However, the income and capital limits vary widely between the different schemes, as does the amount an individual can be expected to pay back out of any winnings. In all jurisdictions there are ways civil legal aid can be granted in exceptional circumstances to those who do not meet the standard eligibility criteria.

This paper examines the differences between the three legal aid schemes, considering their application, key legislation and eligibility criteria. It also provides an overview of the recent data on caseload and expenditure on civil legal aid in each jurisdiction, as well as considering international comparisons of legal aid. Aside from the international comparisons which looks at legal aid schemes as a whole, this paper focuses solely on civil legal aid.

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