If you need an attorney but cannot afford one, you only get an appointed attorney for criminal cases. This seems unfair for people who need legal representation in civil cases but can't afford a lawyer for landlord/tenant disputes, child support, and other critical but non-criminal cases.
Fortunately, there are many resources for low-income people who need representation. There are also legal services for people who need legal advice or help with legal forms for self-help matters. Many free legal services use means testing, but even if you don't qualify for free aid, you can use their services for less than the cost of a private attorney. Read on for the types of low-cost/no-cost legal aid and how to qualify for the services.
Types of Legal Aid
Free legal aid is available for low-income people based on the nature of their legal problems. Most civil legal aid volunteers are not lawyers. They can provide legal information but not legal advice. These legal aid offices will help you fill out forms, review your case, and determine if you need a referral to an attorney. They may also do means testing to see if you qualify for free legal aid.
- Public defender's office. Anyone accused of a crime has a right to legal counsel. The public defender's office is the main legal assistance provider for criminal defendants, but some larger jurisdictions use court-appointed private counsel.
- Eviction services. Nonprofit legal aid, such as the Legal Aid Foundation, provides eviction defense for low-income clients. Their goal is the prevention of homelessness by helping residents stay in their apartments. Some clinics may provide foreclosure assistance.
- Domestic violence clinics. Agencies will help domestic violence victims with temporary restraining orders, locating shelters, and getting child custody orders.
- Veteran's associations. Legal aid societies exist for elderly, disabled, or addicted veterans who need legal support. These are private agencies not affiliated with the Veteran's Administration.
- Immigration and asylum. Free legal advice and help are increasingly available in the border states for those seeking immigration assistance and asylum status in the United States.
There are many other advocacy and legal resources available through low-cost legal clinics. Where can you find this assistance when you need it?
Finding Free Legal Aid
A good place to start is the American Bar Association (ABA). The ABA is the umbrella organization that oversees the state bar associations. The ABA and the bar in your state will have links to free and low-cost lawyer referral services. They will also have information about pro bono attorneys and how to contact them. Larger states have county and local bar associations that can provide better information about resources in your neighborhood.
FindLaw's State Legal Aid Resource page links you to legal aid services in your area. Some organizations, like lawhelp.org, can point you to specific resources in your area.
If there is a law school in your area, it may have one or more legal aid clinics. Law students staff these clinics under the supervision of barred attorneys and can provide free legal answers and help with some legal cases.
Volunteer lawyers or pro bono attorneys may staff the law library in your courthouse. The law library or self-help clinic at the courthouse cannot answer legal questions. They can give you information about legal forms and help with filing and submitting your documents.
Qualifying for Free Legal Help
Not everyone can qualify for free legal aid programs. Most clinics can provide free services to people making less than 125% of the state's poverty level. Some clinics will work on a sliding scale, so people who cannot afford a private lawyer but make too much to qualify for free aid can still find legal help.
Even if you fall into one of the categories listed above — eviction assistance, domestic violence, immigration — you may need to prove you meet the income requirements before they can offer you free help.
If You Still Need a Lawyer
If your legal issues need a resolution, and you can't afford a big-name attorney, there are still lawyers in your area who can work with you. Don't let costs keep you from looking for legal aid.