Qualifying for legal aid
Legal Aid is available for:
- family and civil cases (for example, if you’re in the Family Court to get a Parenting Order, or if you have an employment or ACC dispute) – see: “Family/civil Legal Aid: For non-criminal cases”.
- If you’re going through the Family Court, you can also get Family Legal Advice Service (“FLAS”) (see: “Can a lawyer represent me in a Parenting Order case?”).
- criminal cases (if you’ve been charged with a crime) – see: “Criminal Legal Aid”. You can also:
- talk to a lawyer for free over the phone if you’ve been arrested (see: “Free advice when you’ve been arrested: The PDLA scheme”), and
- talk to a lawyer for free on your first day of court for your case (see: “Your first day in court: Free legal advice from the Duty Lawyer”).
Do I qualify for Legal Aid?
If you’re applying for criminal Legal Aid, Legal Aid Services will consider your financial eligibility (see below), the seriousness of the offence you’ve been charged with, and other special factors about your case (see: “Qualifying for criminal Legal Aid”).
If you’re applying for family/civil Legal Aid, Legal Aid Services will consider your financial eligibility (see below), and the specific nature of your case (see: “Qualifying for family/civil Legal Aid”).
Financial eligibility for Legal Aid
For both applications, the first question that Legal Aid Services will look into is if you can afford a lawyer.
Legal Aid Services will calculate whether your income and disposable assets are below the set limits (these set limits depend on whether or not you have a partner and how many children you have).
Legal Aid Services will assess your income and assets by looking at:
- how much you earn before tax (extra welfare payments aren’t counted as income – for example, an Accommodation Supplement, a Disability Allowance, or an Emergency Benefit are not counted),
- how much you own (including your savings, and any property that you could sell). They won’t include your equity in your first house (the market value of your house minus what you owe on your mortgage) up to $80,000, nor your car, furniture, household appliances, clothing, and any tools and equipment you use as part of making a living (“tools of trade”), and
- how much debt you have (for example, student loans, credit card debts, mortgages, or money remaining on hire purchase contracts). This includes any “contingent liabilities” that could come into effect within the next six months (for example, if you’ve guaranteed a loan for someone and you may have to repay their loan within the next six months).
If you have previous Legal Aid debt (if you’ve defaulted on your repayments), your application might be declined (see: “What happens if I don’t keep up with my repayments?”).
If you’re on a benefit, you’ll usually meet the financial criteria to get Legal Aid.
What if I have a partner?
If you’re married, in a civil union or de facto relationship, your partner’s finances will also be taken into account, unless you’re living apart. If you’re separating from your partner, you should list yourself as single and note in your application that you are in the process of separating from your partner.
Legal Aid Services can also take into account any support you regularly get from your family or others, regardless of how old you are.
What information will I have to give on the Legal Aid application form?
You’ll need to give:
- the address and phone number where you can be contacted at home and at work
- your date of birth.
You’ll also need to give details and evidence of your finances:
- your before-tax income (wages, benefits, ACC etc.). Think about all your sources of income – you can refer to your IRD statements to remind yourself of the income you have declared.
- any savings you have
- the value of any major assets you own, like a house or car
- any debts you owe (like hire-purchase payments on a fridge)
how many dependent children you have.
If you have a partner (including if you’re married, in a civil union, or de facto), you’ll have to give the same financial information about them, on a separate form.
Your lawyer will fill in the parts of the application form that are about your case and why Legal Aid should be granted for it.
How do I find out whether I’ve been granted Legal Aid?
You’ll be sent a letter telling you whether or not you’ve been granted Legal Aid, and if so, how much (see: “How much will Legal Aid pay?”).
The letter will also tell you if and how much you’ll have to repay, and if you have to start paying back the Legal Aid straight away (called “interim repayments”) (see: “Repaying Legal Aid”).
For criminal Legal Aid applications, this letter will tell you which lawyer has been assigned to you. You should contact this lawyer as soon as possible.
If Legal Aid refuses your application, you can ask them to reconsider their decision. If that doesn’t work, you can appeal to the Legal Aid Tribunal (see: “Challenging a Legal Aid decision”).
Tips about Legal Aid
- Make sure the contact details you write down on the form are correct. The lawyer will use those contact details to get in touch with you. If you don’t have a working phone, make sure you include an address that you can receive mail at. You can also put down back-up phone numbers of friends, whānau or an organisation.
- Include as much up-to-date detail about your financial situation as you can. For example, when you list your assets and their value, write down how much you think you’d be able to sell them for, rather than what you paid. Consider what other expenses or obligations you have, like student loans and buy now, pay later payments.
- Include information about your personal circumstances. For example, include if you struggle with literacy, mental health issues, any type of neuro-divergence, or if you have a language barrier.
- It’s normal not to hear from your Legal Aid lawyer straight away. They will usually have started working on your case as soon as it was assigned to them.
- Usually, the best way to get in contact with your Legal Aid lawyer is via email. Legal Aid lawyers spend lots of time in court, so they can’t always answer phone calls or texts. Sending an email will also let you know if they’re away, as most Legal Aid lawyers will set up automatic replies to emails if they are away or sick.
- It’s also common for your case to be assigned to multiple Legal Aid lawyers before it reaches someone that can accept it. You’ll be told each time your case gets reassigned, but you don’t need to worry. Lawyers might not accept your case if they have too many other cases, or if they’ve been sick or on annual leave, or if there is a conflict of interest with another one of their clients.
What happens if my financial situation changes?
If you’ve applied for or been granted Legal Aid, you have to tell Legal Aid Services if your income or your assets increase while you’re receiving Legal Aid (or, even if you’re no longer getting Legal Aid, if you realise that your income or assets increased during the time that you were getting Legal Aid).
If you don’t report the increase, it’s a criminal offence. You can be fined up to $2,000.
Note: Your Legal Aid lawyer has to tell Legal Aid Services if they find out that your situation has changed in a way that would affect whether you still qualify for Legal Aid.