Qualifying for free legal aid depends on several factors. Federal and state constitutions guarantee some individuals an attorney in criminal cases. Pro bono programs and legal clinics may provide free services for individuals based on their income, health status, safety, or location.
If you need legal aid but can't afford to hire a lawyer or need help finding no-cost/low-cost legal assistance, this article gives you some guidelines for where to begin your search. There are many legal resources available for those with legal problems and few resources.
Types of Low-Cost Legal Assistance
Not all legal matters need a high-priced attorney. You can deal with some issues yourself, even with a reasonable income. If you have legal questions and aren't sure you need a lawyer, you can get free legal answers online through legal websites like FindLaw. Once you know your issue, you can decide whether you need an attorney.
- Self-Help Legal Clinics: Most courthouses have self-help centers that provide legal forms and assistance with completing and filing documents. These centers cannot give you legal advice.
- Legal Aid Offices: Legal aid offices staffed by volunteer lawyers, pro bono attorneys, or law student interns assist low-income clients with legal issues like evictions, immigration, and employment. The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles is an example of these legal aid offices. If you do not qualify for their low-income services, they can refer you to attorneys within your income level.
- Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation or arbitration are alternatives for some types of cases, especially family law and small claims issues. Community service providers in mediation offer low-cost or split-fee services for a fraction of attorney fees.
Who Qualifies for Free Legal Aid
Free legal assistance is limited to those unable to pay for legal services. Most state laws define low income as 125% of the poverty level in that state. However, your circumstances may still qualify you for low-cost legal assistance. Some circumstances that may qualify you for free or low-cost aid include:
- If you are a criminal defendant. The Sixth Amendment and the Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright guarantee criminal defendants the right to counsel. The public defender's office must give you legal representation if you cannot afford an attorney.
- If you are indigent. If you are on disability, unemployment, or Social Security, you can request a waiver of court fees. You may also be able to petition the court for representation or partial payment of lawyer fees. If the court feels your lack of representation will unduly prejudice your case, they may grant you court-appointed counsel.
- Domestic violence victims, undocumented immigrants, veterans, unhoused and homeless individuals, and people seeking asylum can find legal help for their specific issues at low or no cost. Legal aid programs for these issues and others exist in all major cities and online.
How to Find Free Legal Aid
There are many ways to locate free and low-cost legal aid services. Every state and city has numerous lawyer referral services and legal aid programs.
- The state bar associations have attorney referral services on their websites. The local bar association can provide information about attorneys and services in your area.
- Law schools may have pro bono clinics staffed by law students overseen by attorneys. They provide advocacy on a wide range of topics. You can reach out to the school through their front office.
- Entering "free legal advice" into your search engine can produce a list of names, but be careful when selecting the provider. You want a site that ends in .org or .gov, like lawhelp.org. Otherwise, you could find yourself on a for-profit site that will charge you for services.
- Check out FindLaw's legal aid resources for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
If you don't qualify for free legal help and still need legal information, contact a lawyer in your area. You can still agree to fee payments and representation about your case.