Legal aid covers a number of different areas of justice, and the extent to which applicants’ financial circumstances are taken into account in granting legal aid varies considerably across these areas. It is therefore not possible to give figures for the number of people eligible for legal aid as a whole. However, some estimates of the likely number that would be eligible are available for certain areas.
In criminal cases, all those arrested in England and Wales are eligible to receive free advice and assistance at the police station. Defendants are financially eligible for representation in the Crown Court, subject to judicial discretion to recover costs. We estimate that around half the population of England and Wales would be financially eligible to receive legal aid in magistrates courts cases following the introduction of the means test in October 2006.
Prior to April 2001 there was a legal aid contribution scheme in operation for criminal cases. The court decided the level of contributions according to the defendant's means. Estimates of eligibility levels under this scheme would be available only at disproportionate cost.
The following table provides estimates of the proportion of the population of England and Wales that were in principle financially eligible for civil legal aid in those categories for which financial circumstances are taken into account in each of the past 10 years where figures are available. However, decisions on granting of legal aid also depend on the merits of the case, while some areas of civil law are not now covered by legal aid. The decline over recent years in the proportion of the population eligible for civil legal aid is likely to reflect increases in general levels of prosperity, changes to the structure of the benefits system, demographic changes, and also the Government’s drive to focus legal aid support on the most vulnerable people in society and to achieve the more effective delivery of civil legal aid.
More effective delivery is evidenced by the number of acts of assistance of civil legal aid not declining in parallel with eligibility over the last 10 years and increasing significantly from 856,000 in 2004-05 to 1,137,000 in 2006-07. Moreover, cash expenditure on civil legal aid (excluding immigration and asylum legal help whose costs reflect the volume of people arriving), rose from £615 million in 2001-02 to £730 million in 2006-07.
Estimated proportion of the population of England and Wales eligible for civil representation (%) 1998 52 1999 51 2000 50 2001 46 2005 41 2007 29
Estimated proportion of the population of England and Wales eligible for civil representation (%)