Getting Legal Help When You Can't Afford a Lawyer

By Brian Farkas, Attorney
How do you protect your legal rights when you can't afford a pricey attorney?

Under the protections of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, criminal defendants are generally entitled to legal counsel if they cannot afford a lawyer of their own. That is, the court will appoint an attorney who will represent the criminal defendant without charge. But what happens to clients in civil cases, or who simply need some legal advice?

While your life or liberty might not be at stake in an everyday legal matter, getting the right advice can still be crucially important. Think of housing rights, child custody battles, immigration and deportation matters, or crippling litigation over medical bills.

For the most part, civil litigants are not entitled to free legal representation. But if you can’t afford a lawyer to represent you in court, before an administrative agency, during negotiations, or in some other matter, don't give up. With a little searching, you may be able to find free or reduced-cost legal help.

Federally Funded Programs

Federal grants fund a national network of legal service offices providing free legal help in civil cases to low-income people. Staff attorneys and experienced paralegals can help with divorce, landlord-tenant, subsidized housing, public assistance, Social Security, and unemployment cases. These lawyers may also know about non-legal resources like temporary housing, domestic violence shelters, and food banks.

Most legal aid offices help only people with incomes below a certain level. Some programs also consider all your assets, no matter what your income. Search the Internet or your local phone directory for “legal services” or “legal aid” in your city.

Most federally funded legal services offices will not, however, help anyone who is an undocumented immigrant.

Charitable Organizations Serving Particular Populations

Depending what is available in your area, you may find a nonprofit (charitable) organization with lawyers or legal assistants on staff, dedicated to providing low-cost legal services to particular populations. For example, various nonprofits serve senior citizens, immigrants and refugees, disabled or mentally challenged persons, artists youth, battered women, low-income tenants, and so on. Such organizations might also coordinate getting pro bono (free) help from attorneys in private practice.

Because such organizations often rely primarily on funding from individuals, or limited-term grants from foundations, they are typically understaffed and quite busy. You are not guaranteed help from any of them, and may need to do some calling around or waiting before one has an opening. Also, you will probably have to pay a fee; just less than you'd pay to a private attorney.

Again, search the Internet or your phone book for "legal services" or "legal aid." Also, once you contact one organization, if it can't help you, it will very likely offer you a list of other places to contact.

Pro Bono Programs and Bar Associations

Lawyers' bar associations exist at the state and local levels, and often provide low-cost or no-cost legal resources to litigants. Many bar associations have pro bono programs staffed by attorneys who've agreed to devote a share of their time to providing free legal representation to eligible clients. You may qualify based on income or other factors, like having AIDS, being an abused spouse, or being elderly.

As with legal service programs, you may have to prove your income level as well as the value of your assets.

Law School Clinics

Many U.S. law schools have clinical programs that are run by law professors and staffed by law students. These clinics give the students academic credit, exposing them to real-world legal issues under professional supervision.

Clinics typically offer free legal services to individuals in the community. Some law schools have very standard clinics, like criminal defense or housing representation. But other law schools offer innovative clinics in niche areas, such as Cardozo Law School’s Indie Film Clinic (representing independent filmmakers) or Georgetown Law Center’s Social Enterprise and Nonprofit Clinic (representing nonprofit charitable organizations).

Call your local law school to see whether it might have a clinic that can help with your legal issue.

Courthouse Facilitators

Increasingly, county courthouses have facilitators on staff to help people process their legal claims. Check with your local bar association or courthouse to see what's available.

A courthouse facilitator can at least help you figure out where you should file your paperwork and walk you through the process of getting your paperwork to the right people within the court system.

Low-Cost Legal Programs

It's easy to have too much income to qualify for legal services, yet still be unable to afford a private attorney. There are programs to help people who fall into this group. Telephone hotlines, for example, may charge by the minute. Or, look for sliding-fee programs to get you the advice and representation you need at the lowest price possible.

The New York City Bar Association, for example, offers a legal referral service. Other bar associations offer similar programs.

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