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Tag: Courts and sentencing

Criminal legal aid / contributions to legal aid

Aim of this information

The purpose of this information is to set out who might be eligible for legal aid, and also to look at who might be subject to paying for their legal aid costs.

Why is this important?

We believe that everybody should have the right to legal representation before they accept a caution, or when they go to court. However, it’s important to be aware that you may need to contribute towards the cost of your legal aid and this can have consequences long after the conviction.

Getting free advice at the Police Station

If you interviewed by the police under caution, or have been arrested, you are always entitled to free legal advice and representation. You will not incur any costs for this legal representation. In some circumstances, for example where you’re interviewed about a minor offence, that this right will be limited to advice over the telephone.

Getting advice in-between the Police Station and going to court

Often the police will release you from the police station to make further inquiries before a decision is made on whether to proceed with a case against you. You will usually be placed on pre-charge unconditional bail whilst these inquiries take place.

During this time, the legal representation you received in the police station won’t cover any work you want them to do. There are however, other ways that you may be eligible to have publicly funded legal advice and assistance. The availability of this particular type of legal representation depends on your financial position.

To get a representation order (what used to be called Legal Aid) an application has to be made to the court. Your legal representation will help you do this. If you didn’t receive any while you were at the police station, you should contact some criminal legal aid providers near to where you live.

The application is subject to two tests.

The first test is called the “interests of justice” test. Essentially, an order will only be granted if the court considers your case “serious enough” for you to need full legal representation.

Generally, if you are charged with a non-imprisonable offence your case will not pass this first test. Such offences include driving document offences, minor Public Order Act offences and being Drunk and Disorderly. However, even if you are charged with one of these types of offence, you may still be able to get representation – you should be guided by the solicitors you’re in touch with about this.

If you are charged with an “indictable only” offence (an offence that can only be heard in the Crown Court) your case will always satisfy this first test.

For those offences that fall in-between these two categories, your solicitor should be able to advise whether or not you’re likely to pass this first test.

The second test is a means test. This is based on your earnings. It’s not possible for us to give the details of this, as it’s quite complex. We suggest you speak with a criminal legal aid solicitors near to where you live and explain your financial situation.

There is no contribution system with Magistrates Court legal aid; you are either financially eligible and you will receive a full representation order or you will not. If you are not eligible for legal aid, then you will have to consider whether you wish to pay privately, or represent yourself. There may also be other local schemes where you can get help with representation.

If your application for legal aid is refused you can appeal the decision. You would also be able to re-apply if your circumstances were to change after an unsuccessful application.

If you are convicted you may be required to pay a contribution to the prosecution costs of the case. This is regardless of whether you received legal aid.

If you appear in the Magistrates Court but are not eligible for a full representation order then you may be able to receive advice and assistance from the Duty Solicitor at court that day. This type of representation is limited to one hearing. However, they’re not able to assist if you are facing non-imprisonable offences.

If your case goes to the Crown Court for Trial you will automatically qualify for legally aid representation once you have completed an application form. After you have been means tested, you may have to pay towards the cost of your defence. This contribution could be from your income whilst the case is ongoing and/or from your capital, if you are convicted.

You will be asked to provide evidence of your income and assets. If you do not your payments could be increased which would result in you paying more towards your defence costs. If you do not tell the truth on your legal aid application you could also be prosecuted.

You will not have to pay towards the costs of your case if you are under 18 when you make your application or if you receive any of the following benefits: income support, income-based jobseekers allowance, guaranteed state pension credit or income related employment and support allowance.

You may have to pay towards the costs if your monthly disposable income is above a certain level. If this is the case, you will receive a Contribution Order from the court and you will have to make payments as required under the order. The first payment will be due within 28 days of your case being committed, sent or transferred to the Crown Court.

You must tell the court about any changes to your financial circumstances during your case because a change may affect the amount you have to pay towards your defence costs. If you do not think you can afford to pay, or you think a mistake has been made, you can ask for a review of the amount that the court has told you to pay. If you do this you will have to provide additional evidence of your financial position.

At the end of the case if you are found not guilty, any payments you have made will be refunded to you with interest. If you paid late or not at all and action was take against you, the cost of this action will be deducted from the refund.

If you are found guilty, you may have to pay towards your defence costs from any capital assests you have. You will be told at the end of your case if you have to make a payment from capital.

Capital Contribution Orders

A Capital Contribution Order (CCO) is an order to make over a lump sum payment to contribute towards the cost of your legal representation fees in criminal proceedings if you are unsuccessful in defending the prosecution.

An Interest Contribution Order is an order to make over some of your income.

CCO’s are recovered by debt collectors often posing as ‘bailiffs’, but the regulations (Regulation 19 of the Criminal Defence (Contribution Orders) Regulations 2009) do not (as yet) provide for levying on goods, breaking into homes or charging you fees.  For more information see here.

As part of a Capital Contribution Order the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) can ask you to agree to pay all your legal fees if you are found guilty at court. Fees would have to be paid from any capital you have and your family home will be taken into consideration.

If you don’t have immediate access to monies to pay the legal fees, the LAA could take out a charge on your home. This means that when you come to sell, your debt to the LAA will be paid directly to them from the proceeds of the sale.

A recent Freedom of Information request based on criminal cases since 2013 found:

table 1

Discuss this with others

Read and share your experiences on our online forum.

Below you will find links to useful websites relating to this page. More specific details (including addresses and telephone numbers) of some of the organisations listed below can be found here.

  • Citizens Advice Bureau – The CAB can provide practical information on a wide range of issues including benefit and debt issues

More information

  1. For practical information – More information can be found in our financial issues section
  2. To discuss this issue with others – Read and share your experiences on our online forum
  3. Questions – If you have any questions about this, you can contact our helpline.

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This page was last fully reviewed and updated in March 2017. If you’ve spotted something that needs updating, please let us know by emailing the details to

Going to court

This is for information only.  We are unable to provide advice on this.  For reasons why, click here.


Going to court, particularly for the first time, can be a rather daunting experience. There is a number of useful resources linked to below that you should take a look at if you want to know more about going to court.

Useful resources

Film by Raising Your Game – ‘Getting ready for court’

The film below has been produced by the Raising Your Game project, which is led by Mencap.

Character references for sentencing

There is little in the way of official protocol surrounding providing character references. However, it has proven to be useful in cases in the past. You should speak to your solicitor about whether they think they would help. You will probably be required to arrange the references yourself, but given they could help your case this is something you should seriously consider.

Much will depend on how your case is dealt with on the day. For example, your solicitor may not get the chance to get the references in front of the judge, your judge may be changed at last minute, or they may simply not want to consider such references. However, all you can do is try.

References should be in writing from people who have known you for some time and who can comment on you from an impartial perspective if possible. If they know about your offence, this could be useful as they can discuss this in the reference that they write. A suggested template is provided below.

These letters should be provided to your solicitor at least a couple of days before you appear in court for sentencing (you may want to take copies first to keep for your own records).



To Whom It May Concern

I have known [FULL NAME] as a Colleague/Employee/Family/Friend for X years. During that time, I have always known him/her to be honest, sincere, dependable and a good family person [use suitable wording according to the individual circumstances[. I have never known [NAME] to be anything other than a person of integrity and to find himself/herself in this current situation is completely out of character. [Insert some brief specific details about the offence if known].

I am a (provide here a description which demonstrates that the writer is of good standing, so perhaps ‘local businessman’, ‘Managing Director’, ‘Community Leader’ etc) and am writing this reference in support of [NAME] of my own free will and in the hope that the Court will take into account [NAME]’s previous good character.

Yours faithfully,

Signed [FULL NAME]

Friends and family at court

It can often be useful to have friends and family come with you to court when being sentenced. This not only provides you with moral support, but can also be an important indication to the judge of how much support you have. This can be a positive factor in sentencing.


Disclosure of previous convictions in court proceedings

If you’ve got previous convictions, you might wonder whether these will come up. Find out more here.

Disclosure of previous convictions in court proceedings


The law of disclosure in criminal proceedings applies to all prosecutions, including private prosecutions.

Under the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, previous convictions of prosecution witnesses must be disclosed to the defence if they satisfy the test of being reasonably capable of undermining the case for the prosecution against the accused, or assisting the case for the accused.

CPS guidance on private prosecutions makes it clear that the Crown Court may grant a private prosecutor a witness summons to obtain material from the police to enable the prosecutor to comply with the disclosure obligation to the defence. Detailed guidance on this is linked to below.

Crown Prosecution Service Guidance (2007) – Disclosure of previous convictions of prosecution witnesses

Crown Prosecution Service Guidance (2009) – Private prosecutions

As a defendant

During the trial of a criminal charge, reference to previous convictions (and therefore to spent convictions) can arise in a number of ways. The most common is when a bad character application is made under the Criminal Justice Act 2003.  Much of this depends on whether you make a point as part of your case about your character – i.e. if you state you are of good character, the other side would be entitled to adduce evidence of your bad character in the form of your previous convictions.  When considering bad character applications under the 2003 Act, regard should always be had to the general principles of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

The court must be provided with a statement of the defendant’s record for the purposes of sentence. The record supplied should contain all previous convictions, but those which are spent should, so far as practicable, be marked as such. No one should refer in open court to a spent conviction without the authority of the judge, which authority should not be given unless the interests of justice so require. When passing sentence the judge should make no reference to a spent conviction unless it is necessary to do so for the purpose of explaining the sentence to be passed

If you are due to appear in court as a defendant in a trial, you should speak to your solicitor about whether they think that the proceedings will bring up your previous convictions. They are in the best position to advise in relation to your specific case.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that court proceedings are exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders, and can therefore disclose spent convictions (subject to above).

As a witness

If a case goes to court some witnesses face an even greater challenge of being cross examined by the defence about their past behaviour which is totally separate from the case being heard.

This “bad character” evidence usually covers earlier criminal convictions, but it is widely defined and can even extend to a poor disciplinary record at work or at school. It is used to show that a witness is not credible and that something in their past suggests that they should not be believed. This could include where they have made false allegations similar to the allegations they are making in the trial.

Before the 2003 Criminal Justice Act there were too many witnesses who were having their character assassinated and their past dragged up with minimal relevance to the case. The Act improved the way bad character evidence is admitted in court ushering in a completely new statutory scheme designed to toughen the previous rules.

Despite this tightening up, witnesses still aren’t always being told that they might be quizzed about their past. Some people are taking the stand without the prosecution telling them that they will be forced to admit episodes from their past before a public audience. Not only can this be extremely traumatic with no prior warning, but it may even mean family members, neighbours or employers hearing about witnesses’ past mistakes without them having the chance to explain first.

If you are due to appear in court as a witness, you should speak to the legal team you are acting as a witness for. We would suggest that you be honest and open about your criminal record, including disclosing any spent convictions that you have. This will help them to advise whether this might come up as part of the process, and what the next steps would be.

For further information on this, see:

Crown Prosecution Service Guidance (2007) – Disclosure of previous convictions of prosecution witnesses


Getting copies of court transcripts

To some people’s surprise, not all court proceedings are recorded and/or transcribed. For example, no formal records of Magistrate Court hearings are kept. Obviously, the outcome of these hearings are detailed, but the actual proceedings cannot be replicated as they are recorded.

The original material (the shorthand notes, tape recordings, etc.) of any Crown Court trial belong to Ministry of Justice (MOJ). It is created and held by one of several Court Transcribing firms who are contracted by the MOJ.

You are entitled to apply to the reporting firm for a transcript (for which the reporting firm makes a commercial charge) provided you have obtained permission from the court concerned. The copyright in all transcripts remains with the Crown. The Crown gives blanket permission for copying and distribution of transcripts for any legitimate criminal justice function and/or for access to personal data.

If you wish to obtain a copy of a court case where you were the defendant, you should speak to the court concerned for details of how to go about this. Each court will be linked to a company that is responsible for transcribing at that court.

Please note: It is not possible to get a transcript of a hearing if the record of the hearing is no longer stored. Generally, records are only held for 5 years.

If you have previously had your case referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, they may be able to provide you with a copy of your court transcripts. You can view their policy in CCRC – Court Transcripts Formal Memorandum.


Victim surcharge

Since October 2012, a new system of imposing a victim surcharge has been in force. The previous regime involved a £15 surcharge on all convicted individuals where a financial penalty was imposed.

The new regime will see the surcharge levied on all those convicted in the courts of any criminal offence. The sums involved will depend on the sentence imposed and so the surcharge is not related to the type of offence committed, the harm caused, the loss suffered by the victim or, crucially, the means of the individual to pay. The surcharge is separate and distinct from any costs or compensation awarded. Judges will have no discretion as to whether they imposed it or not.

The amounts (for those over 18) are as follows:

Offender aged 18 or over at date of the offenceOne Or more offences committed before 8th April 2016All offence(s) committed on or after 8th April 2016
A Conditional discharge£15£20
A fine10% of the fine value with a £20 minimum and a £120 maximum (surcharge should be rounded up or down to the nearest pound)10% of the fine value with a £30 minimum and a £170 maximum (surcharge should be rounded up or down to the nearest pound)
A community sentence£60£85
An immediate custodial sentence *6 months and below – £80
Over 6 months and up to and including 2 years – £100
Over 2 years – £120 (only in Crown Court)
6 months and below – £115
Over 6 months and up to and including 2 years – £140
Over 2 years – £170 (only in Crown Court
A suspended sentence 6 months and below – £80
Over 6 months – £100
6 months and below – £115
Over 6 months – £140

*When sentencing in magistrates’ courts to immediate custody for a single offence committed before 1 September 2014 or more than one offence at least one of which was committed before 1 September 2014, no surcharge is payable.

The Ministry of Justice has published a circular which introduces in more detail the Victim Surcharge. This is available to download here.

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