Unable to afford legal advice, assistance or representation? Here are your most-frequently asked questions about Australia's legal aid, answered
What do you know about legal aid?
Legal aid is the provision of legal assistance and representation to people who are unable to afford it. It ensures everyone’s rights to equality before the law, the right to counsel and the right to a fair trial.
It was established through the 1949 Legal Aid and Advice Act, which was created under former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s government.
There are eight legal aid commissions in Australia, which stand for each state and territory. These state and territory commissions are:
- Legal Aid ACT (ACT)
- Legal Aid New South Wales (NSW)
- Legal Aid Queensland (Queensland)
- Legal Aid Western Australia (WA)
- Legal Aid Commission of Tasmania (Tasmania)
- Legal Services Commission of South Australia (South Australia)
- Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission (Northern Territory)
- Victoria Legal Aid (Victoria)
The directors of these commissions consolidate at a national level to form the National Legal Aid (NLA). These commissions are independent statutory bodies that provide legal assistance to those who are economically or socially disadvantaged.
As claimed in NLA's official website, they receive funding from three sources: the Commonwealth government, the state and territory governments and through interest, contributions and fees.
What does legal aid provide?
legal aid can help you in a variety of ways, but it should be noted that services from different states and territories may differ in some ways. It is still best to visit the legal aid website of your state for more specific information.
Here are some services that these Legal Aid Commissions offer:
- ACT – free and confidential legal advice; grants to help pay ongoing legal costs; free legal information on domestic and family violence, family dispute resolution and migration; advice and help from lawyers on duty; and more;
- NSW – free and confidential face to face legal advice; legal representation for eligible clients; free workshops and webinars; and more;
- Queensland – online legal information and publications; help in court by a lawyer; community legal education; help with criminal, family and civil law (depending on your situation); and more;
- Western Australia – free or low-cost legal services (on cases of family separation, domestic violence, mortgage stress, elder abuse and more);
- Tasmania – free face to face legal advice; possibly free representation if you have been arrested and wish to apply for bail, or if you’re eligible for legal aid but have not applied yet; family dispute resolution conferences; and community legal education and information;
- South Australia – free legal advice; legal representation on criminal and family law cases for those qualified;
- Northern Territory – one free legal advice session to anyone in the NT; legal representation for people with significant legal problems; duty lawyer; legal aid helpline; and more;
- Victoria– free legal advice on a range of matters including child protection and support, discrimination and sexual harassment, debt recovery, issues of refugee and immigration; free arrangement for an interpreter; and more.
Who can qualify for legal aid?
Legal aid commissions have limited funding, so while anyone may apply, free to low-cost legal assistance and other services may not be provided to everyone.
These commissions may have different ways of determining someone’s eligibility for the legal grant. Still, priority is given to people in special circumstances (people with a physical or mental disability or impairment, language or literacy problems, people at risk of physical, emotional or psychological harm, etc.).
Further, applications received for legal aid must satisfy four broad criteria before assistance can be granted.
- Jurisdiction Test – to see if assistance is available in that jurisdiction and area of law;
- Means Test – to see if an applicant’s income and assets are financially eligible for legal assistance;
- Merit Test – to see if an applicant’s matter has “reasonable prospects of success;” and
- Availability of Funds Test – to determine if sufficient state funds are available to pursue the applicant’s request.
Again, legal aid’s eligibility requirements still depend on your state and territory.
What documents do I need to apply?
You may apply for a legal grant directly at your state’s legal aid office. If you wish to be represented by a particular lawyer, you may also submit your application through that lawyer’s office.
For Southern Australia, you may need to access the commission’s online legal aid application form. You’ll also need to submit copies of your proof of means, relevant documents (copies of relevant court orders, proceedings, etc.), choice of a lawyer (you may also choose if you want a male or female lawyer), and other important conditions.
NSW, on the other hand, recommends getting legal advice first before applying. If you need ongoing help, a lawyer may help work out and submit an application for legal aid for you.
Then, you might be able to complete and submit your application online. You will be asked to provide your proof of income (payslips or a copy of your Centrelink Statement of Benefit), bank or credit union statements for all accounts for the last three months and other documentations depending and related to your legal matter.
What cases are not covered by legal aid?
Legal aid mostly focuses on family and dispute resolutions, domestic violence and civil and criminal law matters, debt matters and anti-discrimination and sexual harassment claims.
A legal grant may not cover cases aside from these, but it still depends on your state or territory’s regulations.
Queensland, for example, does not help with commercial transactions or real estate issues, workers’ compensation, local government issues and others. Western Australia also does not provide representation and legal advice about workers’ compensation rights.
If for any reason you’re unable to obtain assistance from Legal Aid, but are also incapable of paying for legal assistance, there are almost 200 Community Legal Centres (CLCs) across Australia that could possibly provide help.
It should be noted that CLCs are different from Legal Aid.