How to Find the Best Legal Aid Services
We all encounter the legal system at some point in our lives, maybe for an adoption, a lawsuit, criminal proceedings, or an inheritance. In 2006, a record-setting 102 million cases were heard by state courts.
Even though we all have some level of experience with courts and legal proceedings, most of us do not have a clue how to handle them.
That’s the purpose of legal aid services. Attorneys advise, defend, and guide people through the confusion of the law.
How do you know if you can handle a case on your own or if you need legal aid services? This article will answer that question and help you find services that you can afford.
1. What Types of Legal Cases Are There?
Before we jump into legal aid service specifics, let’s look at what types of legal processes happen in courts.
There are two main types of court cases: criminal and civil. There are also two main types of courts: federal and state. We’ll break these down for you below.
Federal Court Cases
- Criminal– A person is accused of a crime, such as assault or Internet defamation.
- Civil- There is a legal disagreement between two people or organizations (lawsuits).
- Bankruptcy- A person can no longer pay their debts, so the court helps divide their remaining money and property between the people they owe. The rest of the debt is then erased, and the person has a fresh start.
- Appeals- A case that has already been decided is brought back up because something was not done correctly in the trial.
If your case is in a federal court, you definitely must have a lawyer!
State courts hear all of the same types of cases that federal courts hear but often on a smaller scale. Below is a list of all the types of civil cases state courts handle.
- Small Claims Court- People or organizations sue each other for $10,000 or less. No one can have a lawyer in these cases.
- General Civil- People sue one another usually for property damage or injury.
- Family Law- This court helps settle divide assets in divorces, decides custody battles, finalizes adoptions, and assigns child support payments.
- Landlord/Tenant- This type of case is typically a dispute between a landlord and tenant about eviction or getting a deposit back.
- Probate- These cases include wills and handles the estates of people who are unable to take care of themselves.
- Juvenile- This category includes criminal cases for people under the age of 18 (juvenile delinquency) and home placements when someone under 18 can no longer stay with their guardians (juvenile dependency).
30 million cases are heard in state courts every year while federal courts only hear about 1 million. Chances are then, most of your legal encounters will be in state courts.
Attorneys are only appointed in criminal cases. In all other types of cases, the client must pay for their own lawyer or defend themselves.
2. Why Can’t You Represent Yourself?
We’ve all seen television shows where a crazy client tries to represent themselves and all the lawyers are telling them not to. Why is that?
The truth is people often don’t know how to explain themselves. They know what happened, but when it comes to an intimidating courtroom and a judge, they don’t know what to say.
This is devastating when you consider the fact that explaining your case well can lead to reduced sentences or even dropped charges.
Another reason to get legal aid services is that the law is complicated. You can try to study up and understand the legal standing of your case. But wouldn’t you rather have the opinion and advice of someone who went to law school and passed a state law exam?
The Australian court system is pretty similar to America. A recent study there found that the cases of 63% of people who represent themselves are over in 5 minutes. 26% of these cases are done in less than 2 minutes.
Do you think you can adequately explain yourself to a judge in that amount of time?
3. Do You Qualify for Free Legal Aid Services?
You may be eligible for free legal aid services based on the following categories.
- Income- If you can prove to a judge that you are “indigent” or low-income, you may be able to get free or low cost legal representation. Laws vary on this from state to state.
- Health- If you are a disabled veteran, check with your local veterans administration. You may qualify for certain types of legal aid. Also, if you have HIV/Aids, you may be able to get free services or reduced rates.
- Civil vs. Criminal Cases- If you’re accused of a crime, the state is obligated to give you a public defender if you can’t afford a lawyer. The state will only appoint attorneys for criminal cases.
- Safety – If you are the victim of domestic violence, you may qualify for free legal services. The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) has more information.
- Civil Rights- If your legal issue is a civil rights case, you may be able to obtain free legal services. Law firms often like to take on this work pro bono because they can become large lawsuits.
- Immigration Status- Immigrants can often receive free legal assistance for visas, work authorizations, green cards, etc. Check with your local legal services agencies.
- Organizations- If you are a community organization that helps the underprivileged in some way, you may have law firms in your area wanting to support your work. Check with local legal aid services to see if your organization qualifies.
4. How to Find Legal Aid Services?
Legal aid societies offer free legal assistance to people who cannot pay an attorney. Many people do not qualify for their free serves though, because they make too much money. Only about 50%of people who apply for help from a legal aid society receive it.
Lawhelp.org is also a great resource. They offer legal advice and resources for low-income people.
Another place to find affordable legal advice is a law school. State law determines what law students can actually do, but they can always give advice even if they can’t represent you.
Some law schools also have law clinics with reduced rates for people with a low income.
You can also consider contacting your state bar association. They may be able to help you find a lawyer who is willing to do a pro bono case.
Make sure to ask some local lawyers for their rates too. They may not be as high as you think or they may offer discounts.
Some law firms will also only charge you if you win your case. Just make sure you know the percentage they charge if you win before you ask them to represent you!
Remember when asking for attorneys, make sure to find a local lawyer who specializes in the area of the law you need. You don’t want a divorce lawyer representing you on a burglary charge!
Interested in researching specific legal aid services in your area? Start by checking the specialties of attorneys near you.