Under normal circumstances, legal services cost clients hundreds or thousands of dollars. However, some people are not able to afford to pay these rates. It would be easy to assume that people who are indigent or living on limited means must forgo hiring a lawyer to represent them.
In fact, legal services are available to people who qualify for legal aid or pro bono lawyers. You can pursue either of these options for your particular criminal or civil matter by learning what they are and how to qualify for them.
What is Legal Aid?
Legal aid is a program that is available in all 50 states. Every state has its own rules for how the program is operated and what criteria that clients must meet to qualify for it. In general, however, it offers legal assistance from attorneys who are paid through government sources like grants or municipal funds.
The attorneys who work for legal aid programs are generally paid significantly less than what they could get paid by private clients. Nonetheless, these lawyers are in fact full members of the state bar association and typically considered to be experts in their respective legal fields.
Clients who qualify for legal aid are not expected to compensate their attorneys for services rendered or other fees. They receive quality services that are on par with those that they would receive if they could afford to hire and pay for an attorney to represent them.
It should be noted, however, that legal aid programs typically move at a slower pace than privately paid attorneys and law firms. The reason for the delay revolves around the fact that the demand for legal aid services exceeds the availability of lawyers who are willing to work for the program. Clients who want to make use of legal aid typically have to submit an application and then get on a waiting list that can be months or longer before their cases can get underway.
What is a Pro Bono Lawyer?
A pro bono lawyer is a lawyer who agrees to take on a client’s case at no cost. When lawyers take an oath to the state bar, they agree to help clients in need who need but cannot afford to pay for legal services. The frequency at which lawyers take pro bono cases is discretionary and is not regulated by the state bar association.
The quality of services that clients receive through pro bono representation is the same as services received by paying clients. Lawyers typically will take one or two pro bono cases per year and work them alongside the cases of clients who are paying them for their services. They do not purposely delay their pro bono work in favor of the cases that are being paid for by other clients.
Qualifying for Legal Aid
Legal aid programs utilize rigorous criteria to determine if clients genuinely qualify for free legal services. In general, clients who qualify are restricted in factors like:
- Health status
- Whether their cases are civil or criminal in nature
Every state legal aid program has different qualifications, however, which is why people who are interested in these services are encouraged to check with their municipal or state courts before contacting the legal aid society.
To expand on these qualifications, many states will agree to render free legal services to:
- The indigent or low income earners
- Victims of domestic violence
- Disabled veterans
- People involved in civil rights disputes
- HIV or AIDs patients
- People receiving benefits like food stamps, SSI or SSDI, or cash welfare
People who fit these criteria must submit a relatively lengthy application to the legal aid society. They will be asked to submit proof of their income, residence, and disabilities if applicable. They also could be required to provide proof of their criminal or domestic case in which they are involved.
The most urgent of legal cases, such as those that involve the protection of human life or avoiding jail time, will be handled first. Cases that are considered to be less urgent will be worked into the work calendar of the legal aid program.
Where to Find a Pro Bono Lawyer
Lawyers typically do not advertise the fact that they are willing to take on pro bono cases. Instead, people who are interested in finding a pro bono attorney need to use other methods to locate one who can take their cases.
The most common method for finding a pro bono lawyer involves contacting the state bar association for a referral. The bar association will give out resources for pro bono lawyers at no cost to the public. Despite the referral, there is no guarantee that the lawyer will take a person’s case at no cost.
Another way to find a pro bono attorney involves reaching out to free legal or university law clinics. Free legal clinics typically work in conjunction with legal aid programs. University legal clinics permit upper-level law students to work on people’s cases under the supervision of their law professors.
Free legal and university law clinics also restrict the types of cases that they are willing to represent. They generally agree to take cases involving probate matters, such as making or executing a will. They also will represent clients involved in disputes with collection agencies or creditors.
It should be noted that if a person is involved in a criminal matter that could result in him or her going to jail that this individual is constitutionally entitled to a lawyer. If he or she cannot afford to pay for one, the court will appoint an attorney to represent the defendant at no cost to him or her.
Legal aid programs and pro bono lawyers offer services at no cost to clients. They allow people who otherwise would not be able to afford to hire a lawyer to get adequate representation in their legal cases. Qualifying for either option calls for people to satisfy certain criteria. Qualifications involve adhering to limitations in their income, health status, and other factors.