How Can You Get a Free Attorney?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Courts provide free attorneys only in criminal cases, when defendants cannot afford to hire attorneys.[i] They do not provide lawyers for poor people involved in civil cases.

Legal Aid offices provide free legal representation in civil cases,[ii] but litigants have to find those legal aid offices on their own.[iii] Legal Aid offices come in many forms; they might serve a particular demographic group (for example, women) or work on a limited range of issues (for example disability law). They might be available through bar associations, law schools, social service agencies, or simply as independent non-profit organizations. Usually, both criminal courts and legal aid offices use the federal poverty guidelines[iv] to determine whether someone is eligible for free legal assistance.

In some jurisdictions, there is a pool of lawyers who work full time in the criminal court system and are paid by the court system to defend accused criminals who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. Those pools of lawyers are known as public defenders. In other jurisdictions, the court system contracts, either with the entire criminal defense bar, or else just the criminal defense attorneys willing to participate, to pay lawyers to represent criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.[v] In these systems, the lawyers’ names are on a roster and the court clerk simply assigns the next person on the roster as soon as a low-income criminal defendant is in need of representation. That kind of system is a court-appointed attorney system.

In many jurisdictions, the public defender’s office is backed-up by a court-appointed system when there are too many cases for the public defense team to handle.


[i] U.S. CONST. Amend. VI. This constitutional provision plus summaries of major cases interpreting it are at http://supreme.justia.com/constitution/amendment-06/index.html and at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/amendment06/.[ii] The federal government established the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to fund legal aid offices that provide non-criminal legal services for indigent people throughout the country. The LSC Web site http://www.lsc.gov/ has a thorough online library of resources for self-help litigants and those seeking or suing legal aid offices. The site also has numerous reports and studies about free legal services for the poor.

[iii] Three electronic sources for locating your local legal aid offices are LawHelp http://www.lawhelp.org/, Justia http://law.justia.com/, and Findlaw http://www.findlaw.com/14firms/legalaid.html.

[iv] The Department of Health and Human Services publishes the federal poverty guidelines at http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/index.shtml.

[v] The American Bar Association provides a chart showing how each state’s indigent criminal defense is structured. The chart also cites the state’s indigent defense statutes. http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/downloads/sclaid/indigentdefense/statewideinddefsystems2005.pdf The ABA also provides reports about state spending on indigent defense systems and sets for the fundamental principles for indigent defense systems at http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/sclaid/defender/home.html.

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