Justice Treacy, sitting today in the High Court in Belfast, ruled that the Legal
Aid Assessment Office (“LAAO”) was entitled to consider a student loan as
Nadine O’Kane (“the applicant”) is a student at the
University of Ulster. In 2011 she was injured in a fall and applied for legal
aid to commence High Court proceedings. As well as student finance (a tuition
fee loan, maintenance loan and maintenance grant), the applicant was in receipt
of earning from her part time employment. In assessing her application for
legal aid, the LAAO considered her maintenance loan and maintenance grant (as
well as her earnings from her part time work) as income. Based on this, the
LAAO required that she should make a contribution of £1557.00 to her legal
costs. The applicant sought a judicial review to challenge the LAAO’s decision
to consider her student loan as income.
Justice Treacy said that the stated aim of the Legal Services Commission in the
provision of legal aid is to provide “fair and equal access to justice” by
providing financial assistance for legal fees. The scheme seeks to establish a
person’s net financial position before assessing if any contribution is due.
The judge noted that the assessment of what constitutes “disposable income” (or
net financial position) must be the same for all applicants regardless of what
form their income takes and would constitute the assessment of income, capital,
debt and liability.
judge held that the applicant does not currently owe money on her student loan
and said that as a result there is no current liability for any such debt: “The
student loan payments fall squarely within the ordinary construction of the term
Justice Treacy went on to say that to disregard the present status of the
applicant’s student loan as “income” and to construe it instead as a current
liability, would put her in a better position than other applicants when having
their net financial position assessed under the scheme and would therefore
undermine the scheme’s stated aim. He concluded that the LAAO was therefore not
entitled to do other than regard it as income.
application for judicial review of the LAAO’s decision was dismissed.