Whether you qualify for free legal aid depends on your income, safety, location, and whether your issue involves criminal defense or a civil lawsuit. Even if you qualify for free legal aid, you may face problems finding a free legal services agency that can take your case, especially if the agency has limited staff and resources or if your legal issue falls outside of what the agency covers.
But don't be discouraged. If you are unable to afford a lawyer but believe you may qualify for free legal aid, this article can help point you in the right direction. Be sure to check with your local court or legal aid program in your area for more detailed intake information.
If You Have Been Accused of a Crime
You may be eligible for free legal aid from a court-appointed attorney or public defender if your liberty is threatened (in other words, you face going to jail.) A public defender is a lawyer who represents criminal defendants who are unable to afford an attorney. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a lawyer in certain criminal defense matters.
Not every criminal defendant is guaranteed a lawyer, however. For example, most traffic violations (outside of driving under the influence, or DUI/DWI) are not considered criminal offenses. If you want to contest a traffic violation, you may be able to hire a local lawyer who regularly handles traffic violations at a reasonable cost.
The same is true for inmates who are seeking parole or are asking for a writ of habeus corpus to contest their sentence. Many inmates end up representing themselves in these issues. But you are always free to hire a lawyer to represent and guide you or a loved one if you can't get a pro bono attorney. You just aren't given one by the state or federal government.
If You Are Poor or Needy as Defined by the Court
In some cases, you may qualify for free legal aid if you can document to a judge you qualify for "indigent" representation. Under indigent representation, the court appoints a lawyer to you. Keep in mind you may have to partially reimburse the court for the cost of legal services given to you. Specific qualifications for court-provided counsel vary widely by state and sometimes among different courts within the state.
For information about indigent defense services in your area, including qualification criteria, see FindLaw's state-by-state directory of public defender offices.
If You Are a Victim of Domestic Violence
If you are a victim of domestic violence you may qualify for free legal aid from organizations that can help you gather evidence of abuse and file for restraining orders, among other things. For immediate assistance no matter where you are located contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
What About Family Law?
While many organizations exist to help victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), there are fewer options for family law matters such as divorce, child custody, guardianship, and others. You may be able to find resources from father's rights organizations or nonprofits that help single mothers, for example, but generally these organizations do not help pay for legal costs. It is difficult to find an attorney who is able to take on a divorce or child custody dispute for free.
Fortunately, you may have other options. Your state's bar association may occassionally offer a legal clinic where you can get free legal advice for things like child custody and child support disputes. Check your state bar association website to see if there are any upcoming clinics. While you may not get full legal representation, you can get your legal questions answered at no cost.
No state requires you to hire an attorney for legal problems involving family law. You can always try to do it yourself. However, if you are going through one of these important life events, you may be able to reach an arrangement with an attorney that allows you to keep expenses lower. For example, some family law firms may agree to help you with only one area of your legal matter for a set cost. Share your concerns with any lawyer that you contact and see what they say.
If Your Household Income Is Less than a Certain Percentage
If your income is currently below the national average for the number of people in your household, you may qualify for free legal help. Most legal aid society offices, legal aid clinics, and pro bono attorneys (private attorneys offering free legal help) serve those whose household income is less than 125 percent of the federally recognized poverty level.
If You Are a Disabled Veteran
Mentally and physically disabled U.S. Veterans may be eligible for free legal aid on issues ranging from rent assistance to child visitation matters. For eligibility requirements, check your local veteran's association to see if you or a member of your household qualifies for free legal help with a number of services.
If You Are an Immigrant
Many agencies give free legal services to immigrants and other noncitizens in need of help on issues ranging from visa applications, green cards, deportation proceedings, and work authorizations. Eligibility requirements vary from program to program.
The Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), a part of the United States Department of Justice, may be one place to find a pro bono attorney. The EOIR list of pro bono organizations by state would be a good place to start your search.
If Your Case Involves a Civil Rights Issue
Legal aid services and advocacy organizations with lawyers on staff often take on cases that fall within their particular area of interest. Many constitutional lawyers work for the American Civil Liberties Union or the NAACP. They may take your case if it involves a potential infringement of your First Amendment rights or racial discrimination, respectively.
Other options may be available. For example, if you want to sue for police misconduct, there may be the option of working with a lawyer for a contingency fee. This means that you do not have to pay anything to the lawyer, instead the lawyer will take a portion of the money you receive when you win your case. If you don't win, your lawyer isn't paid.
Finally, some private law firms or lawyers will take cases that fall within their particular area of interest at no cost in certain circumstances. For example, you may be able to secure free aid from an attorney for a pay discrimination lawsuit against an employer if it has the potential to become a larger class-action suit.
If You Are a Community Organization
Some legal services organizations and clinics provide free legal assistance to individuals and non-profit or community organization seeking to improve the economic, cultural, social, or environmental well-being of disadvantaged or underserved communities. Community problems may include neighborhood deterioration, inadequate housing and homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, racial discord, and crime. Check with your state's individual community legal programs for specific eligibility and intake requirements.
If You Are Facing Eviction or Housing Discrimination
Many organizations also help low-income renters who are facing eviction. Legal Aid offices across the country may be able to help, as can other non-profits and even private law firms. Eviction is a common area for attorneys to engage in pro bono work.
It is more difficult to obtain free legal services for other real estate issues, however. If you have a dispute with your homeowner's assocation (HOA) for example, volunteer lawyers will likely only help if the dispute involves discrimination of some type.
If You Currently Receive Financial Assistance
If you currently receive financial assistance through other public aid programs such as Supplemental Security Income, live only on Social Security benefits, or receive other federal, state, or local financial assistance, you may be eligible for continuing free legal services in your state.
To find free legal help in your area, take a look at FindLaw's legal aid resources for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
If you do not qualify to receive free legal services based on any of the above criteria, you may wish to speak with a lawyer in your area to discuss alternative fee arrangements. You are also able to find free legal information on a wide variety of legal topics on Findlaw.com.