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What happens if you cannot afford family law legal representation (and you aren’t eligible for legal aid)?

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If you are considering a divorce or in the throes of other family law proceedings, you are probably worrying about how you will pay for the legal advice. Legal Aid for divorce and family proceedings is now only available for a limited number of extreme cases. However, there are a number of options open to those who require legal representation but are not eligible for legal aid. If you are unsure how to proceed because of financial constraints, please read on.

What are the options for funding family legal representation?

There are several options to fund family law cases. These are:

  • Speak to your chosen firm of solicitors to see if they offer a payment plan or if they will allow you to enter into a “Sears Tooth Agreement”. This is where your solicitor deducts what you owe them from the proceeds you might receive from the divorce settlement.
  • Obtain a litigation loan. Specialist loans to cover legal costs are becoming increasingly popular, and are essentially a personal loan to meet your legal costs. The loan is repayable out of the eventual settlement.
  • Obtain a Legal Services Payment Order (LSPO). This is an order where one party is ordered to pay the other an amount to enable them to obtain legal services. This is generally only applicable in a small number of cases.
  • Spousal maintenance. If one party can demonstrate a shortfall in their income during the divorce proceedings, a spouse can be ordered to pay interim maintenance until the divorce is finalised. This is referred to as “Maintenance Pending Suit”.
  • Funding from your ex-spouse/partner. If your ex has greater assets or income, they may agree to meet your legal costs. This can be appealing when you may otherwise have had to take out a loan which would include interest and reduce the resources available for division.
  • Borrowing money from family/friends. This is often the cheapest way to borrow money and you can agree to repay the loan from any financial settlement. It is important to have a legal document in place setting out the terms of repayment or there is a risk the court may ignore the loan when dividing the matrimonial assets.
  • Check your insurance/memberships for legal coverage. If you are a member of a trade union, they may offer you free legal help or you might get assistance with legal expenses as part of another subscription, insurance policy, or credit card agreement.

Alternatively, you can represent yourself and deal with the divorce online. Although you will certainly save money, the stress and anxiety involved in acting for yourself, not to mention the time taken up in doing so, may far outweigh any costs savings benefits. If you have a low income or are in receipt of certain benefits and have little in the way of savings, you may also be able to get help with your court fees.

What are the pitfalls of representing myself in court?

Representing yourself may seem like a good idea if you are concerned about legal costs, but navigating the complexities of legal proceedings can be daunting, requiring a deep understanding of the law and court procedures. Here are some of the common pitfalls:

  • Beware of those offering advice. There are lots of individuals on the internet offering advice on how to represent yourself and win. Often, they charge fees for this service, which can match those of fully qualified legal professionals, when their advice is typically based on their own experience of the family court.
  • You will need to research the law and how it applies to your case, become familiar with court procedure, how to prepare court documents, present the case, and challenge the other party’s evidence. Will you have time to do all that research? And even if you are committed to doing so, are you really going to be a match for the other side’s lawyer, who is likely to have many years of experience and training under their belt?
  • The law is dispassionate and objective, whereas litigants in person rarely are, because they are emotionally “all in” on their case. You may become passionate and animated by the arguments, but the other party’s solicitor will remain calm and rational. If you start to get angry, you risk damaging your case. Your passion, no matter how heart felt will not help you in court. It will hinder you and potentially harm your case.
  • You may lose perspective. For many litigants in person, they feel the whole court system is against them rather than accepting they are simply wrong in their interpretation of the law. This can be difficult for people who represent themselves to accept because they are so emotionally involved in the case.

The lack of expertise, inadequate case preparation, procedural errors, and limited negotiating skills all underline just how difficult it is being a litigant in person. Think long and hard before going ahead, and see whether one of the funding alternatives described above may help you pay for specialist legal advice instead.

Is it possible to use a solicitor’s services more cheaply or smartly?

You may be able to make ad hoc or shorter appointments for free or at a set cost. Some solicitors provide 30 minutes legal advice for free; some offer a fixed fee for a certain amount of time. This way you will know how much the advice will cost in advance.

A free or fixed fee appointment can help you find out your rights and legal position and can be a good way to discuss procedural issues. To get the best out of your appointment, make a note of the points you want to raise, and take any relevant documentation or paperwork you want the solicitor to look at and advise upon. All these things can help make the most of a legal appointment, and reduce costs overall, whether you are acting for yourself or have fully funded legal representation.

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