Broadening access to justice

Friday, May 19, 2023

The recent revision of Legal Aid South Africa’s Means Test is expected to widen access to legal assistance for many.

Recently, the independent statutory body, established by the Legal Aid South Africa Act 29, 2014 as amended, announced the upward revision of the test in order to cater to more people who are in need of legal assistance.

“We use the Means Test to determine if the applicant applying for legal aid qualifies for assistance in terms of their income and assets.

“The Means Test ensures that legal aid is not given to people who can pay their legal costs”, says Legal Aid South Africa’s National Civil Legal Manager, Hanoneshea Hendricks.

Legal Aid South Africa (Legal Aid SA) which is accountable to the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, is tasked with providing legal aid to those who cannot afford their own legal representation. This includes the poor and vulnerable groups like women and children.

“In terms of the Means Test we will take the gross income of the applicant, add any additional allowances received and deduct the tax and the allowable rebate.

“After the calculations, the applicant must have a minus balance to qualify for legal aid. Where the applicant has a positive balance, certain discretions can be applied in terms of our internal policy. The Legal Aid SA Regulations sets out what the rebates are. These rebate amounts are reviewed annually by the Board of Legal Aid South Africa,” Hendricks explained.

The Board of Legal Aid SA reviews the Means Test annually to determine whether changes should be effected.

“It [the Board] considers the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to determine by what percentage the rebates should be amended. The change in the Means Test that was implemented from 1 April 2023 was a result of such a review,” Hendricks told SAnews.

The test is reviewed annually with a view to changes being effective from the start of Legal Aid SA’s new financial year which falls on 1 April. The CPI is monitored throughout the year, with the Legal Aid SA Board making a final decision on whether to amend the Means Test or not by February, which is during the final quarter of the financial year.

Legal Aid SA has a mandate from the South African Constitution to help the poor get tax-funded legal assistance. 

The body provides citizens with assistance in criminal and civil cases.


The revision of the Means Test has resulted in new thresholds having been put in place from 1 April 2023.

In applications for legal aid in criminal or civil cases, applicants must earn less than R8 200 per month. In applications for legal aid in civil cases where the applicant is a member of a household, applicants must earn less than R9 000 per month.

If an applicant owns movable assets, they must not be worth more than R151 700 and if an applicant owns immovable assets, they must not be worth more than R711 700.

Meanwhile, in criminal cases, children continue to automatically qualify for legal aid and do not have to take the Means Test. If it is a civil case matter, the family of the child will need to take and pass the Means Test.

Hendricks points out that while the revision has been made, it is too early to measure the impact of the change.

“The Means Test applies when someone wants to apply for legal representation in court. The amended Means Test became effective in April 2023 and therefore it is still early to measure the impact of the change,” she says.

However, Legal Aid SA looks forward to championing the rights of even more persons to access justice through the provision of independent, accessible as well as quality legal aid services in criminal and civil legal matters, at no cost.


In the 2021/22 financial year, Legal Aid SA helped a total 487,552 people with legal representation and legal advice which according to the entity’s 2021-2022 integrated annual report, is a 31% increase compared to the previous financial year.

“This figure comprises a total of 314,998 (89%) new criminal and 40,143 (11%) new civil matters, and the provision of legal advice to 132,411 people.

“This is 17% more criminal matters, 44% more civil matters and 75% more advice matters than the 2020-2021 financial year,” noted the annual report.

In addition, Legal Aid SA assisted 11,686 children in 2021-2022; 6,935 children in conflict with the law and 4,751 children involved in civil matters.

Hendricks said it is a “privilege and heart-warming to work towards protecting the rights of vulnerable groups and becoming their voice to ensure that they receive justice.”

She does also point out that it can “become challenging when we do not have capacity at some offices or areas. “Legal Aid SA’s footprint extends to 64 local offices and 64 Legal Aid SA satellite offices, which are supported by six provincial offices and the national office.

Other than providing assistance in criminal and civil cases, Legal Aid SA’s mandate has also been extended. Legal Aid SA now also provides legal representation and mediation services in land related disputes, for those who are not able to afford the cost of their own legal representation.

This follows a 2019 recommendation by an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Land Reform to transfer the Land Rights Management Facility (LRMF) from the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) to Legal Aid SA. Legal Aid SA took over the management of the LRMF in January 2022.

To date, the Land Rights Management Unit is represented across the country’s nine provinces with a total of 142 employees.

Asked about the most common concerns raised by who seek help from Legal Aid SA, Hendricks said the body’s regulations make provision for assistance in a variety of matters.

“Clients seek assistance in civil, criminal and land related matters. Concerns differ from area to area, community to community and what is prevalent at any given time. For example, during the peak of the pandemic, there was a spike in divorce matters as COVID-19 put a strain on families.”

Legal Aid SA targets high traffic areas, including service delivery points such as the courts and prisons. It also participates in outreach programmes where it goes into communities to awareness of its services.

The public can make use of Legal Aid SA’s Advice Line on 0800 110 110 between 7 am and 5 pm to receive legal advice.  The public may also send a Please Call Me to: 079 835 7179.

Assistance on the Advice Line is free and no means test is applied. –