How to find the right legal advice
Think you need a lawyer and don't know how to go about finding one? Whatever your reason for needing legal counsel, choosing the right person to represent you could be crucial to winning your case. But how can you make sure you choose the best lawyer for the task - and still keep costs under control?
Starting your search
It's always a good idea to get word-of-mouth recommendations from friends, family and colleagues. Then look them up on the Law Society website (lawsociety.org.uk) and check they are fully regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
You can also use the Law Society's 'find a solicitor' tool to locate a specialist solicitor near you. The results can be filtered to show only firms of solicitors who are accredited specialists in a particular legal field, in which case their "skills and knowledge have been rigorously and independently tested", a spokesperson for the society says.
However, it's worth bearing in mind that, sometimes, hiring a solicitor is not the best option and could rack up your legal costs unnecessarily.
In some cases, you will be better off going to a mediator, who will help you to put forward your view and be heard by the other party. Mediators are not always lawyers but can explain legal principles to both parties and identify the various legal options available to you both.
Meanwhile, in other situations, it may be better to skip the help of a solicitor entirely and go straight to a barrister.
Here's what you need to know.
If you're getting divorced, before you go to law, consider paying for a mediation service instead. Not only is this a vastly cheaper option (£500 each on average, compared to £4,000), it takes just 110 days on average, while going to court typically takes 435 days. Also, while legal aid for divorce court cases has been abolished, legal aid for mediation is still available if you pass the means test.
According to Relate, a relationship charity that provides a mediation service to couples, two-thirds of couples who start mediation are successful in coming to an agreement, avoiding stressful and costly court battles.
In the future, under the Children and Families Bill (which is currently going through parliament), there will be a requirement that couples consider whether mediation would be appropriate before they start legal proceedings. However, if both parties cannot agree on mediation, you will then need to go to court.
Phillip Rhodes, spokesperson for law firm Pannone, recommends that – as well as searching on the Law Society website - you look for a family lawyer who is a member of Resolution (resolution.org.uk), and so follows a code of practice that requires them to "resolve family law disputes in a constructive and non-confrontational way". This should reduce your legal fees, too.
Suing a company that has failed you
The fee for taking a company to the small claims court has risen by 81% this year and the average wait for a hearing is now more than six months.
A 'small claim' is a claim for less than £10,000 that is likely to take less than a day in court to resolve.
Due to the wait time - and the fact that costs could potentially be awarded against you - it's best to treat the small claims court as the last resort, and make a complaint via an ombudsman or watchdog first. This will stand you in good stead should you need to go to court later. If that isn't possible, you can also take advantage of the small claims mediation service, provided by the Ministry of Justice.
If you do bring a case to the small claims court, then you don't need to hire a solicitor to represent you – you can represent yourself. Free help is available from Citizens Advice or you could get unlimited legal advice over the phone and by email from advisers at Which? for a fee of £86 a year. Or pay £25 a month and you can get your letters vetted by a lawyer at rocketlawyer.co.uk.
If you don't mind doing the paperwork yourself but would rather have a barrister for your day in court, it is likely to be cheaper to hire one yourself rather than going through a solicitor. "Barristers who take clients direct are good value," says Charles Parry, a barrister at Templars. "The barrister does not have to carry the cost overheads of premises, insurance and staff on the same scale as solicitors and as a result provides competitive rates."
Use myBarrister.co.uk to find barristers who are willing to be hired directly by clients – all members must be qualified, regulated and have been practising for three years to join the site.
The site's director, Bruce Webster, says it particularly makes sense to involve a barrister "if the case involves complex contracts or litigation, because chances are they deal with similar cases every day".
Suing an employer
From 6 April 2014, anyone considering an employment tribunal claim must contact the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) first. You will be offered a new service called Early Conciliation.
As of July last year, you must pay £160 to launch an employment tribunal claim and £230 for a tribunal hearing for 'straightforward claims' such as unpaid wages or redundancy payments. If you're accusing your employer of discrimination in the workplace, the fees are higher at £250 and £950 respectively.
Luckily, there is a lot of free legal help available so you can make an informed decision about the likelihood of winning your case before you pay any fees. For example, charity Maternity Action runs an advice line (0845 600 8533) to help workers understand their rights while pregnant, on maternity leave and returning to work, and Acas itself has an extremely useful helpline (0300 123 1100) offering free support and impartial legal advice.
If you foresee a huge battle and are concerned about running up a big legal bill, consider hiring an employment lawyer on a no-win, no-fee basis.
"When you are looking to appoint a lawyer, you should be able to have a detailed conversation with the most senior person in the team without obligation or fee," says Jane Cowley, a partner at Howes Percival. "This could save you a fortune as you get to find out if they are right for you and they can assess the full scope of your requirements - your needs may be more complicated or a lot more straightforward than you think."
Small claims court
Courts that sit in England and Wales (Sheriffs Court in Scotland) and used by the public to resolve most consumer and personal-related disputes. “Small claims” refer to action where the monetary value involved is £5,000 or less. You can claim for faulty goods or services and even for wages owed and also bring a personal injury claim, as long as the value is under £1,000. You can also use small claims court if you’re a tenant claiming against your landlord for repairs that total less than £1,000. It’s worth noting that, even if you lose your case, you won’t have to pay the other side’s costs.
A test to assess the financial “means” or resources (income, savings, property) of a person to determine whether or not that person is eligible for financial assistance (such as state benefits, legal aid, free prescriptions, etc) from the government. A means test can also be used by the courts to determine whether or not a person is eligible to enter bankruptcy proceedings or if they have the means to repay their debts to their creditors.
If you’ve have a complaint about a financial service product you have bought but the company you bought it from refuses to resolve your problem after eight weeks, the Ombudsman can help. The Ombudsman will investigate and resolve the matter. The Ombudsman is independent and its service is free to consumers. The Ombudsman may find in the company’s favour but consumers don’t have accept its decision and are always free to go to court instead. But if they do accept an Ombudsman’s decision, it is binding both on them and on the business.