Hiring a private law firm or attorney can be an expensive endeavor. Clients often spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars retaining the legal counsel they need to work their cases.
When you are on a limited budget or face circumstances that can make hiring a lawyer difficult, you could get help through your state’s legal aid program. These criteria are a few that many states’ legal aid programs use to qualify people for free or reduced services.
Being Accused of a Crime
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to representation to anyone who is accused of a crime and cannot afford to hire a lawyer of his or her own. Under the Miranda rights that are read to people who are arrested for criminal offenses, they can receive a free lawyer by having the court appoint one to represent them.
The public defenders office will assign a lawyer to take the defendant’s case and provide quality legal services at no cost. The public defender is paid for his or her time and fees from city or county funds.
In general, defendants must be facing serious criminal consequences like jail time in order to qualify for a public defender. An attorney is not guaranteed if a person is facing a civil matter like being sued by a creditor.
Victims of Domestic Abuse
Legal aid programs also provide free legal services to victims of domestic violence. People who suffer violence from spouses or significant others can take advantage of these services to escape their relationships and secure protection for themselves and their children.
The legal aid program can help domestic violence victims secure Protection from Abuse or PFA orders, which are essentially restraining orders to keep their abusers away from them and their children. The services can also help victims file for separation or divorce as well as petition the court to issue a child support order against the abuser.
Depending on the circumstances, victims can also get help from legal aid to find suitable housing. They can also be given assistance in applying for food stamps or welfare to help them rebuild their lives.
Court-defined Poverty or Neediness
Each legal aid program in each state has its own definition for what income levels qualify as indigent or poverty. The general rule stipulates that clients must have an income at or below 125 percent of the federally recognized poverty level in order to qualify for free legal services.
If their income is slightly above this amount, clients may have to reimburse a small amount of money to the legal aid program for its services. The income limit as defined by each state program also typically takes into consideration factors like a client’s household size and the cost of living in the state.
Clients who apply for services will be asked to provide proof of their income by submitting:
- Income earning statements for all earners in the household
- Tax records
- Self-employment payment records
- Bank statements
They will be asked to provide proof of identities for everyone who lives in their household before they will be approved for legal aid services. They also will be asked for proof that they qualify for and use government benefits programs like food stamps, Medicaid or cash welfare.
Disabled U.S. veterans qualify for free legal services from their state legal aid programs. Disabilities apply to those that affect both physical and mental health. Veterans who suffer from a qualifying condition like PTSD or paralysis can typically get prompt help with a variety of legal matters.
Some of the cases that are worked at no cost for veterans include:
- Rental assistance
- Housing disputes
- Denial of government benefits
- Employment contract issues
- Child visitation
- Divorce or separation
U.S. veterans who want to apply for services from legal aid will be asked to submit an application along with proof of their service in the military. They can submit their DD 214 form as well as proof of their disability to the program. Their cases are generally given priority over less urgent legal cases.
Immigrants and Non-citizens
State legal aid programs provide legal services at little to no cost to immigrants and non-citizens in the U.S. In particular, legal aid can help these clients with issues like:
- Green cards
- Visa applications
- Deportation proceedings
- Work authorization
Every state has its own set of criteria that it uses to qualify immigrants and non-citizens for low cost or free legal services. People who need this type of assistance are encouraged to check with the local court system to find out what the qualifications are and what kinds of cases the state legal aid program can handle for them.
Civil Rights Issues
The lawyers and paralegals who work for legal aid programs in particular like to take cases that involve civil rights issues. They welcome the opportunity to work legal cases that involve everything from racial discrimination to equal pay disputes.
If the legal issue has the potential to become a larger class action lawsuit, the legal aid program will typically accept the case more readily. These programs function to fulfill a void in the justice system that exists because of under-representation of lower income and at-risk clients. If the case has the potential to better society and boost justice for people in at-risk demographics, the attorneys will work the case typically for no cost to the client or clients.
HIV or AIDS Patient Legal Services
Many states have legal aid programs that function solely to provide services to HIV or AIDS patients. These clients can get help with cases involving:
- Estate planning
- Family law
- Insurance matters
- Housing discrimination
- Legal questions
To qualify for these specific legal services, clients will be asked to provide proof of their HIV or AIDS patient status. If they need prompt help, they could be asked to provide documentation of their current health status.
These criteria are a few that legal aid programs use to qualify people for legal services at little to no cost. They are designed to serve people who are at-risk in society or have no other way to hire an attorney to represent them. They also ensure that people who have pressing legal needs receive prompt assistance with situations that jeopardize their freedom, housing, family, finances, health or ability to work or remain in the country.