Under the Sixth Amendment, each defendant facing criminal charges has a right to legal counsel, whether they can afford an attorney or not. The public defender system operates according to the financial need of each criminal defendant, based on their income. Defendants in civil cases are not entitled to free legal representation, in most cases. However, there are options available for those whose cases involve other serious matters such as housing, immigration or child custody.
Federal grants are available to provide free legal help for low-income people. These grants fund a network of offices with highly experienced attorneys and paralegals that can provide assistance with cases involving housing, unemployment, Social Security, divorce and public assistance. They may also be able to provide information about related resources like food banks, temporary housing and shelters for domestic violence victims.
Legal aid offices typically assist only those who meet certain income requirements. There are also some that will take all assets into consideration, regardless of income. It should be noted that most of these services are not available to undocumented immigrants.
County courthouses often employ facilitators that can help individuals process their claims. At the very least, they can help you determine where to file your paperwork and offer guidance to make sure your paperwork reaches the right people within the system. Your local bar association can provide more information on what’s available in your area and how it works.
Depending on where you live, you may be able to find a nonprofit organization that offers low-cost legal services to certain groups of people. Some might cater to senior citizens, while others may serve immigrants, battered women, the disabled, or low-income tenants. These organizations will often coordinate with local attorneys to offer free services, as well.
Since these nonprofits typically rely on private funding, they’re often understaffed and busy with many cases. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that they will be able to help you and you may have to wait for some time. It would be wise to call other such organizations in your area, in case one of them can help you sooner. Keep in mind that you’ll probably have to pay some type of fee, but it will be less than what an attorney would charge.
Law School Clinics
Some law schools have clinic programs that offer free legal services to the surrounding community. The clinics are run by law professors with students on the staff. Students get credit for working in the clinics, allowing them to gain real-world experience under the best possible supervision.
Some law school clinics deal with standard legal issues, such as housing representation or criminal defense. Others cover unique niches, representing specific groups like nonprofit organizations or independent filmmakers. Contact your nearest law school to find out if they have a program that might be able to help you.
Many bar associations also provide low or no-cost legal help for certain members of the community. Bar associations at both state and local levels often have pro bono programs featuring attorneys who donate their time to offer free representation to clients that meet certain qualifications. Some of these associations qualify their clients based on their income, whereas others offer their services to specific groups like the elderly, abused spouses, or AIDS patients.
While many people may qualify for low-cost legal assistance, there are plenty of others who make just a bit too much. Despite their income, these people may still not be able to afford a private attorney’s fees. Fortunately, there is help for such individuals in the form of telephone hotlines. Sliding-fee programs can also help someone get the right advice and representation for the best possible price.
Whether you’re able to get help through one of these programs or not, you should also know that many lawyers also take cases on contingency. This means that the lawyer takes a percentage of the settlement as payment. In any case, the only way to know where you stand is to look into what’s available in your area and start making inquiries.