You can’t afford an attorney? Here’s what to do next.
Usually, when you hire an attorney, it is to avoid being drained financially by an ex-spouse, former business partner, or adversary who wants to sue you. But what do you do when you need a lawyer to protect your assets, and paying for one is out of the question?
In a criminal proceeding, if you can’t afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for you. In a civil case (generally described as a dispute between two private parties), to get legal representation, legal aid might just be your best bet.
In some situations, however, the people who most need an attorney are also the ones who least can afford one. Whether accused of a crime, injured in an accident or facing the loss of your children, the stakes are high enough that you may need a lawyer even if you cannot afford one. Do you need a lawyer when you have little money? Depending on your situation, you can employ a variety of strategies to get free legal advice or cheap legal assistance. Read on for more information on your options.
Attorneys may be supplied only in criminal cases. Criminal matters have historically been the most common for court-appointed counsel. Anyone who has seen a cop show or movie knows the famous warning:
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”
Child Abuse Cases
Many jurisdictions currently provide state-funded attorneys in child dependency cases. Notably, a right to counsel in a civil action, such as a dependency case, is rare. Given the gravity of the circumstance, several courts have created a right to counsel in similar situations.
The process varies by jurisdiction, but it is usually done by a court as soon as feasible. Some states do so automatically, while others need the interested party to request it. Many states have used volunteers similar to the “conflict attorneys” described above to satisfy this demand.
Accidents, Injuries, and Fee Cases
An alternative approach to acquiring legal advice without large upfront costs. This is the “contingency fee” structure, whereby one pays an attorney only if the client receives compensation. Generally, the client pays nothing or only a portion of the case’s costs (like filing and service fees). If the attorney loses, the client pays nothing, but if the attorney wins, the client pays a share of the award.
This allows clients who cannot afford an attorney’s hourly charge to acquire legal assistance, and it also encourages the attorney to reach a quick and favorable resolution to be paid. In most circumstances, this pricing structure is only available to clients with high potential awards and limited schedules, making the attorney’s eventual gain worth the risk. Many attorneys will accept contingency fee matters involving personal injury or traffic accidents. Deferred-fee representation is not likely to be available in business and contract disputes, construction disputes, divorces, bankruptcy, and criminal matters.
Look to Legal Aid Societies
Legal aid societies are non-profit organizations found in almost every corner of the country that provide free legal services to low-income people. While this is certainly worth exploring, the problem for many households is that the individual or couple makes too much money to qualify for help.
Free Legal Aid (Pro bono)
Finally, some attorneys are willing to help those in need. This is called “pro bono” (Latin for “free”). Many towns and counties have free legal clinics that help fill out forms. A legal aid organization near you may be able to represent you in court. Legal assistance attorneys are either paid staff or volunteers who will represent you in court or other hearings. You must normally have a specific income and the case must be exceedingly meritorious.
In rare situations, the legal aid organization may want to be reimbursed for its costs if you win the case. Since you haven’t paid, this will not go back into your pocket, but it will benefit the next individual in need of free legal representation.
Others will volunteer to represent someone. In certain cases, the attorney’s services are likely to go unpaid. However, many attorneys believe that giving back to the community is an important part of their professional commitment, therefore it is possible to acquire skilled counsel for free.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Who gets a free lawyer?
The Constitution offers free legal aid to those accused of crimes which warrant prison sentences. If this is the case, it is advisable to request for a public defender when you first appear in court. When a court determines someone is “indigent” (has limited assets and cannot afford an attorney), either a private lawyer is assigned and paid for by the county or a public defender is appointed. Some public defender programs are allowed to charge a nominal “application fee” to clients.
Who else gets a free lawyer?
You don’t get a free lawyer in non-criminal or civil situations. However, numerous legal aid and pro bono programs give free civil legal assistance to the needy. People who earn less than 125% of the federal poverty level are eligible for these programs, while some exceptions exist (the current income guidelines are listed here.) Enlisted military personnel and other unique circumstances may also be eligible for assistance, even if their income is slightly higher. Because these community-based initiatives frequently have limited funds and resources, they can only aid a limited number of people.
How do I get a court-appointed representative when I can’t afford an attorney?
Deputies are usually assigned counsel during the arraignment, which is the initial court appearance. Demanding a lawyer from the court requires defendants to swear to their income, assets, and costs.
These questions are regularly used in court to establish a defendant’s financial eligibility for court-appointed counsel.
Each jurisdiction has its definition of the indigent. For example, when a defendant is “financially unable to obtain counsel”, the court must assign counsel.
Courts may also consider the complexity of the case when determining eligibility for court-appointed counsel. In a simple drug possession case, a nurse with a high hourly pay may be able to afford an attorney, but not in a complex and significant drug trafficking prosecution.
Financial eligibility surveys can be investigated by courts, and false information could result in penalties ranging from having to pay the government’s legal fees to being charged with perjury!
Can defendants pick their lawyers?
Defendants who qualify for court-appointed counsel cannot pick their attorney. Instead, judges appoint a contract lawyer who defends the indigent. Each jurisdiction employs contract attorneys (sometimes known as “panel attorneys”) in its way. Every state has public defenders, and all public defenders are fully licensed attorneys hired by the state to fulfill its Sixth Amendment obligation to assist counsel. Without public defenders, courts may select private attorneys to represent indigent defendants at taxpayer expense.
Are court-appointed attorney fees required?
In the US, “free” counsel typically comes with hidden expenses for defendants. For example, several jurisdictions impose a $50 registration fee to acquire a court-appointed attorney. Defendants may be ordered to compensate the government for part or all of the expense of court-appointed counsel if the court eventually determines that they can afford it.
What is a pro bono program?
Pro bono programs enable low-income persons to find free legal advice from volunteer lawyers, sponsored by state or local bar associations.
What is a lawyer referral service?
Many state and municipal bars provide free lawyer referral services. These agencies will interview individuals to determine their legal needs. If a lawyer can help you, the service will refer you to one. If you don’t need a lawyer, the service can connect you with alternative local resources.