Ways to pay for legal advice

divorce costsLegal advice does not come cheap – the hourly rate for an average high street solicitor is upwards of £200 (+VAT).

Multiply that by the time it takes to resolve a complicated matter, and the end result can be an almighty bill. If you are looking for highly specialist advice or to be represented by one of the major firms, rates can rise to a whopping £700 an hour.

Fortunately, for certain types of cases there are number of ways to avoid having to find the full amount up-front, and in some circumstances you may not need to pay at all.

Firstly, find out if you are eligible for Legal Aid. Although this has suffered significant cutbacks in recent years, this is still generally available for everyone for representation at police stations, and on a means-tested basis for trials at magistrates and Crown courts. For civil cases, Legal Aid is always means-tested (and the bar is pretty low) and it is no longer available at all for some types of case, such as more straightforward personal injury claims. Your solicitor will be able to advise on whether you qualify and apply on your behalf. Alternatively, you can check your eligibility with the Community Legal Service's online calculator.

In the event that you cannot get Legal Aid, free advice may be available from the Solicitors Pro Bono Group, through which solicitors provide advice for deserving case at no cost or a Citizens' Advice Bureau. Trade unions also sometimes provide funding for legal advice for their members, depending on the type of case.

It may also be worth your while checking your household or car insurance policy as many of these include legal expenses cover for certain types of disputes. They can also be bought as standalone insurance policies and while it may be too late by the time you read this, these can provide excellent value for money when compared with cost of funding legal advice.

If none of these sources are available to you, then for many types of claims (but not family or criminal matters), you may be able to use a conditional fee agreement, perhaps better known as “no win, no fee”. At face value these look like a win-win scenario: if you lose, then you do need to pay the solicitor; if you are successful then the solicitor can claim a bonus on his or her fee of up to 100 per cent, which is paid by the other side. The reality, however, is more complicated. Many claims will involve additional expenses – for example medical reports, expert evidence and barristers' fees – which may need to be paid for up-front and, if you lose, you will be liable for all or part of the other side’s legal and other costs.

For these reasons, many litigants take out “after the event” insurance policies to cover their expenses if they lose a case. It was these policies that caused many of the problems that surrounded Claims Direct and other personal injury claims firms a few years ago, when the courts decided that the costs of these policies were too high to be fully paid for by the losing party. As a result, litigants saw their compensation reduced by having to pay part of the cost of these policies.

Since then the system has been fine-tuned to prevent this happening, but there remain a few grey areas with both conditional fee arrangements and after the event insurance policies and you should discuss the potential consequences with your solicitor. Other things to consider are what and how the solicitor is paid if your case is settled before reaching court. Even if you do win your case, the other side may refuse or be unable to pay, so you’ll need to find out who will bear the risk.

Finally, there is always the option of financing legal action through a personal loan and many solicitors will allow you pay their bills in installments although you may need to ask them to provide this.