Getting free legal aid is possible if you are on a low income. That’s all well and good. But if you’ve ever tried to access free legal aid before, then you know the biggest problem is finding a pro bono, or free, lawyer. Bummer. And, if you’re in a situation where you need a lawyer, you probably have enough stress already. Hunting down a pro bono attorney is probably the last thing you want to do.
Receiving divorce papers, facing a child custody case, or having a run-in with the law are major legal problems. If you can’t afford an attorney, the panic is all too real. And let’s face it – the idea of having to represent yourself in court is enough to make you chew through a bottle of antacids before you can say, “Miranda Rights.”
You already know that getting proper legal representation can affect the outcome of your court case. Winning can mean the difference between getting custody of your child or not. The best legal aid could reduce any fines you have to pay. It may even keep you out of prison.
The good news is that there is free legal aid out there for you. If you haven’t enough money to hire a lawyer, some organizations can help you regardless of the numbers in your bank account.
What does “pro bono” mean?
The most common type of free legal aid available are referred to as “pro bono” organizations. They are prepared to take on cases like yours for free if you don’t have much money. If a pro bono lawyer can’t help, you still have other options. For example, legal aid clinics, personal injury attorneys on contingency, and public defenders are all types of free legal aid for people on a low income.
In this article, you’ll find out what you can do if you need a lawyer but can’t afford one. You’ll also learn where to find free legal aid near you.
What is Free Legal Aid?
The kind of legal help you can get for free depends on the type of problem you have.
Lawyers divide legal issues into two main groups:
- criminal legal problems
- civil legal problems
You generally need a lawyer if you have been accused of a criminal offense or been charged with a crime. If you’re broke and don’t have money for a lawyer, the court can appoint a public defender. You could also find a pro bono lawyer who takes on criminal cases. In any case, you have the right to a free lawyer if you are facing criminal proceedings.
If your case is a civil, non-criminal case, you will need to find your own legal aid services. Examples of civil cases are child custody issues, problems with contracts, and lawsuits. The U.S. Department of Justice says that free legal help is available to “low- and middle-income families who have civil legal problems.”
Government-funded legal services provide free lawyers for low-income families. This means you can get free legal aid for divorce, child custody, or other domestic issues. Free legal assistance is also available to help apply for SSDI, qualify for housing assistance, or get other government grants.
Other types of cases you may get free legal aid for can include:
- protecting you and your children from domestic violence
- help to avoid or prevent foreclosure on your home
- applying for unemployment benefits or SSI
- immigration applications
The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) has information on locating free legal aid in your local area.
Pro Bono Legal Aid
Apart from nonprofit legal organizations, you can also use a pro bono lawyer. This is a volunteer lawyer who will take on your case for free. You don’t have to pay the lawyer, and the lawyer doesn’t get paid.
Did you know that every lawyer in the U.S. should offer pro bono work? The American Bar Association (ABA) says that each “lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.”
Unfortunately, you probably have rarely seen a lawyer advertising their free services. So, finding pro bono legal services is a challenge, but not impossible.
How to Find Pro Bono Organizations Near You
Where can you find a pro bono lawyer? The best way is to find a free legal clinic in your area. There you can look for pro bono programs for people with low-income. At these clinics, you can also get a lot of legal advice to help sort out many types of civil cases.
You can start your search at the ABA’s website, where they have a pro bono directory. All you have to do is filter results for your city, state, and type of civil legal aid you need.
Your income has to be less than 125% of the federal poverty level to qualify for a free legal aid lawyer.
Free Legal Aid and Contingency Fees
Usually, civil legal aid doesn’t help if you claim money damages for personal injury. So, what are your options if you’ve been involved in an accident but don’t have money for a lawyer? In these cases, you need to find a lawyer who does something called contingency work.
You’ve probably seen many billboards and T.V. adverts for lawyers who take on personal injury cases for free. Their payment is based on contingency fees when they win the cases.
How do contingency fees work? These cases are called “no win, no pay” cases. The lawyer is willing to take the case with no money upfront. If they win the damages case, they get a percentage of the damages as their fee. If they lose the case, they don’t get any fee or payment.
Some reasons to choose a lawyer to work on contingency fees are if you need to go to court to claim for any of the following cases:
- Personal injury
- Medical malpractice
- Workers’ compensation
- Employment discrimination
- Sexual harassment
- To collect a massive debt
You can’t use contingency lawyers in divorce or child custody cases.
If you don’t have much money, a contingency lawyer has some advantages. For example, you’re not faced with a huge legal bill if they lose. Also, you don’t need to pay money upfront, so hiring a contingency lawyer can be more accessible. You can also negotiate the contingency fee. Because the lawyer’s fee depends on winning the case, they are usually extremely motivated to work hard for you.
Unfortunately, it may not always be possible to find a contingency lawyer. Many won’t take on cases where there is a big risk of losing or if it will take many hours. Also, the fees can be up to 50% of the damages.
Free Legal Aid for Low-Income Individuals
You’ll have to do some legwork, but free legal aid is usually available if you can’t afford a lawyer. Pro bono organizations and government legal services can give you the help you need to defend yourself in court or in a civil case.