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Finding Free Help

By: the American Bar Association

Who is entitled to a free lawyer?

The Constitution guarantees free legal help for people who are charged with a crime which might lead to imprisonment and who cannot afford a lawyer. If you find yourself in this situation, request the appointment of counsel when you first appear in court. When a court decides someone is "indigent" - with few assets and no funds to pay an attorney - generally either a private lawyer will be appointed by the court and paid with county funds, or a public defender program will be appointed to represent the person. Some public defender programs are permitted to charge an "application fee" from clients, though this is usually a small amount.

Who else qualifies for a free lawyer?

In non-criminal or "civil" cases, you do not have the right to a free lawyer. But there are many legal aid and pro bono programs that provide free legal help for the poor in civil cases. These programs generally help people whose income is less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, although in some cases they help people whose income is slightly higher. (Look at the table at the bottom of this page for the current income guidelines.) In addition, people who are elderly, disabled, the victims of domestic violence, enlisted in the military or in other special circumstances may be eligible for help even if their income is a little higher. Because these community-based programs often operate with very small budgets and don't have enough resources to serve all eligible people, they handle only certain types of cases and must turn away many people who ask for help.

What is a legal service/legal aid office?

Legal services offices, also called legal aid offices, employ staff lawyers to provide legal help to poor clients. The lawyers are usually experts in the types of problems that poor clients most often encounter. Some are federally funded and some are privately funded.

What is a pro bono program?

Pro bono programs help low-income people find volunteer lawyers who are willing to handle their cases for free. These programs usually are sponsored by state or local bar associations. You can look for a pro bono program in your state, please select a state from the ABA’s Find Legal Help home page.

What is a legal hotline?

A legal hotline allows people to talk to a legal aid lawyer by phone to ask about legal questions or problems. In addition to providing legal advice, a hotline may be able to review documents, prepare letters and provide legal forms to callers. A hotline may be able to make a referral to a free legal services program or private lawyer. Some hotlines limit their service to specific legal matters or specific groups of people (such as a legal hotline for senior citizens). Many hotlines are sponsored by legal aid programs. To search the ABA’s site for legal hotlines in your state, please select a state from the Find Legal Help home page.

Are there other sources of free legal help?

In addition to community-based legal help from legal aid and pro bono programs, some cities and states have other programs that give free legal help to clients who are elderly, disabled, members of the military, or in other special circumstances.

What do I do if I can't get free legal help?

If you can't find help from a legal aid or pro bono program, some alternatives include contacting a lawyer referral service (some may be able to refer you to a low-fee lawyer) or hiring a lawyer for only part of the legal work and doing other parts yourself (this is known as "unbundled" legal services). You can also try to get legal information and try to handle the legal issue yourself. To search the ABA’s site for help in your state, please select a state from the Find Legal Help home page.