Getting Legal Help When You Can't Afford a Lawyer

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If you can't afford a lawyer to represent you in court or during negotiations, don't give up. You're hardly alone.

In many parts of the country at least one side in divorce cases doesn't have a lawyer. For lots of people, the times when they need a lawyer are the times they can least afford one. It happens in cases involving divorce, injury, illness, job loss or the death of a loved one.

With a little searching, you may be able to find free or reduced-cost legal help.

Federally Funded Programs

Federal grants fund a national network of legal service offices providing free legal help in civil cases to low-income people. Staff attorneys and experienced paralegals can help with divorce, landlord-tenant, subsidized housing, public assistance, Social Security and unemployment cases. These lawyers also know about non-legal resources like temporary housing, domestic violence shelters and food banks.

Most legal aid offices only help people with incomes below a certain level. Some programs also consider all your assets, no matter what your income. Check your local phone directory under "legal services" or "legal aid."

Pro Bono Programs

Many bar associations have pro bono programs staffed by attorneys who've agreed to provide free legal representation to eligible clients. You may qualify based on income or other factors, like having AIDS, being an abused spouse or being elderly. As with legal service programs, you may have to prove your income level as well as the value of your assets.

Self-Help Clinics

Some local and county bar associations put on free self-help clinics. Lawyer volunteers answer your questions and help with forms. These clinics may be held weekly or monthly. You may get to talk with an attorney individually, or you may be part of a large group, asking questions within earshot of others.

Courthouse Facilitators

Increasingly, county courthouses have facilitators to help people process their legal claims. Check with your local bar association or courthouse to see what's available. A courthouse facilitator can at least help you figure out where you should file your paperwork and walk you through the process of getting your paperwork to the right people within the court system.

Public Defender Organizations

All states have networks of public defenders who provide free or low-cost legal help to criminal defendants. This service is available only to clients who fall below minimum income levels. Clients must document their lack of income.

Low-Cost Legal Programs

It's easy to have too much income to qualify for legal services, yet still be unable to afford a private attorney. There are programs to help people who fall into this group. There are telephone hotlines that charge by the minute and sliding-fee programs to get you the advice and representation you need at the lowest price possible.

What to Expect

Don't be put off by run-down furniture or a casually dressed attorney who looks young enough to be your kid brother. Remember the limited money available to fund these programs goes directly to office supplies and other overhead.

The lawyer you see may have an astoundingly large caseload or may be helping low-income clients in addition to his regular paying clients, so be patient if you have to wait to see him or if he doesn't return your calls right away.

It's helpful to write down a chronology of events of your case and also provide the attorney with copies of everything related to your case: contracts, receipts, bills, letters and so forth. When talking with the legal services lawyer, stick to the facts of the case.

And don't worry that a lawyer might look down on you just because you're broke. Chances are, he has a family member or friend in the same situation, or has even experienced financial woes himself.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If we win any money in my case, will I have to use it to pay my legal costs?
  • I'm broke but some of my relatives have money. Will they have to pay my legal bills?
  • I'm afraid if I lose the case I'll be worse off than if I did nothing. Is that possible?
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