Whether you qualify for free legal aid depends on a number of factors such as your income, health status, safety, location, and whether your issue is of a civil or criminal nature.
And even if you qualify for free legal aid, you may face problems finding a free legal services agency who 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.
Even so, if you are unable to afford a lawyer but believe you may qualify for free legal aid, the following can help guide you in the right direction. Be sure, however, to check with your local court or legal aid program in your area for more detailed intake information.
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 and the constitutional guarantees the right to legal counsel in certain matters.
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, 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.
You Are a Victim of Domestic Violence
If you are a victim of domestic violence, or fear for your safety, 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).
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 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. The exceptions are Alaska and Hawaii, which have higher income eligibility thresholds.
You're 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 veterans association to see if you or a member of your household qualifies for free legal help with a number of services.
You're 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.
Your Case Involves a Civil Rights Issue
Private attorneys, legal aid clinics and advocacy organizations with lawyers on staff often take on cases that fall within their particular area of interest. 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. The American Civil Liberties Union may take your case if it involves a potential infringement of your First Amendment rights. There are several such organizations that are open to taking the right case.
You're 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.
You Are Living with HIV/AIDS
There are several HIV/AIDS legal services programs that provide free legal aid to low-income clients who are infected with HIV or AIDS on matters including estate planning, employment or housing discrimination, insurance difficulties, family law questions, and other legal issues.
You Currently Receive Financial Assistance in Other Programs
If you currently receive financial assistance through other public aid programs such as SSI/SSP, Food Stamps program, County Relief, Older Americans Act, and Developmentally Disabled Assistance Act, for example, 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.