Private attorneys and law firms can charge clients thousands of dollars to work their cases. A significant portion of the population cannot afford to pay these rates. They often believe that they will have to represent themselves or forgo services that they need to resolve their legal situations.
However, instead of assuming that legal services are off-limits to them, they can consider using one of the legal aid programs in their city or state. Legal aid provides critical assistance to people who otherwise would have no means to retain a lawyer to represent them or their cases.
Understanding Legal Aid
Legal aid is a program that provides counsel and advocacy to at-risk clients. Every state offers legal aid to people who qualify for these services. The counsel and advocacy are provided by state bar-admitted attorneys and paralegals who are paid for their time through funds like state grants and donations.
The quality of services are on par with those that paying clients receive when they hire private attorneys or law firms to represent them. The attorneys are many times experts in their respective fields and have respectable win-loss records to their credit.
Legal aid is considered vital to fulfilling a void in the justice system. Specifically, the U.S. justice system recognizes the right for criminal defendants to have access to legal counsel. However, it does not recognize the right for people to have legal help during non-criminal matters.
With that, legal aid functions to serve this need and also ensure fairness in the justice system. These programs provide assistance to more than 47 million Americans on average each year. They protect the rights of millions of low income earners, the indigent and others who are deemed at-risk in society.
Legal aid serves primarily as a lifeline for people facing life-altering consequences because of their legal circumstances. It advocates for systemic changes that will affect millions of Americans who do not have the means to retain legal counsel for themselves.
Qualifying for Legal Aid
Legal aid programs in every state require people to qualify for the services before they can gain access to free legal counsel and advocacy. The process for qualifying begins by submitting an application for services. The application will require people to submit proof of:
- Number of people in the household
- Health status
- Legal circumstances
Most programs require people to be at or below poverty level in order to qualify for services through legal aid.
Further, legal aid functions to serve clients like:
- The elderly
- Victims of domestic abuse
- People with disabilities
These demographics are generally considered to be the most at-risk for under-representation in legal situations in and out of court.
It should be noted, however, that legal aid programs, while designed to accommodate these particular clients in society, are severely underfunded in most states. As such, most programs are forced to prioritize serving the most disadvantaged of clients facing the most pressing of legal needs.
Statistics show that half of the number of people who apply for legal aid services in the U.S. are turned away. They instead are given a limited amount of advice before being provided with tips for accessing self-help legal resources. Those individuals who are approved for legal aid services often must face being on a lengthy waiting list for weeks or months before their cases are handled.
Typical Legal Aid Cases
Legal aid functions to handle specific types of cases. In general, these programs take on cases like:
- Unlawful evictions
- Domestic abuse
- Wrongful denial of government assistance
- Child custody
It serves in legal areas, such as:
- Consumer law
- Family law
Legal aid provides a total of $1.345 billion in free legal services to clients in the U.S. each year.
A quarter of legal aid programs’ funding comes from Legal Services Corporation or LSC every year. It grants awards to an average of 134 legal aid programs in all 50 states.
Additional funding for legal aid comes from:
- Private foundations
- Public donations
- Funding from state bar associations
- Federal, state and city grants
- Cy Pres awards
The lawyers and paralegals who work for legal aid programs are paid for their time and expenses from these funds. Despite being paid less than what they could earn from private paying clients, attorneys provide their services to legal aid to fulfill their oath to help the less fortunate when they were admitted to the state bar.
Wait Time for Legal Aid Services
The wait time to gain access to legal aid services can be substantial in some cases. These programs typically serve the most pressing of legal cases first. If someone is in danger of losing his or her housing or facing criminal punishment, he or she will be served first before someone who wants to file for divorce or contest an employment contract.
It is not uncommon for people who have less urgent cases to wait upwards of a month or longer before they are given access to legal services and an attorney. Because of the time that they must wait on a waiting list, people who sign up for legal aid are encouraged to maintain a working phone number and provide updates to legal aid if they have a change in address, income or household composition.
Despite the waiting list, legal aid works on cases continuously throughout the year. It makes a priority to serve the clients who are approved for services. Most people have their cases accepted and worked on before the end of the calendar year.
Legal aid fulfills a critical need for representation and advocacy for the at-risk in society. It exists in all 50 states and employs the services of state bar-admitted lawyers and paralegals. The programs receive funding from donations, grants and contributions from other sources. They provide legal help to people who otherwise would not be able to afford to hire an attorney of their own.