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Legal Aid in the US Ultimate Guide (2022)

Dena Standley | December 20, 2022

Dena Standley
Legal Expert, Paralegal
Dena Standley, BA

Dena Standley is a seasoned paralegal with more than 20 years of experience in legal research and writing, having received a certification as a Legal Assistant/Paralegal from Southern Technical College.

Edited by Hannah Locklear

Hannah Locklear
Editor at SoloSuit
Hannah Locklear, BA

Hannah Locklear is SoloSuit’s Marketing and Impact Manager. With an educational background in Linguistics, Spanish, and International Development from Brigham Young University, Hannah has also worked as a legal support specialist for several years.

Summary: Spending hundreds of dollars an hour on a professional attorney can be downright impossible when you struggle to make ends meet. But legal aid is a lifesaver for low-income families caught up in legal tussles, and SoloSuit is here to help. Below we discuss legal aid and organizations that can connect you to free or low-cost attorneys.

At any time, you may need legal aid. A divorce, death, child protective services (CPS) investigation, lawsuit, or even a landlord-tenant conflict can leave you feeling lost, stressed out, and unsure of what to do. But legal aid allows you to get help from an attorney for your legal problem.

There are over 750 separate and independent civil legal aid providers in the United States. These providers are primarily staff-based and funded by many sources. A total of over 900 pro bono programs and hundreds of law firm pro bono programs supplement this system.

Legal aid may be your best option if you cannot afford a lawyer, and it is available throughout the United States. Some legal aid offices specialize in helping people with low incomes, while others have a more flexible income policy, such as a sliding scale for fees based on income. You can also find self-help resources at most legal aid offices. Let's explore this further below.

What is legal aid?

A legal aid program provides free legal services to low- and middle-income American citizens who need help with legal issues. As a free service, it protects those without the means to defend their rights in the justice system, including the detained, arrested, suspects, accused, and charged persons.

Most legal aid cases involve:

  • Domestic violence: A protective order, a child custody order, and a divorce are all possible with legal aid when your partner abuses you.
  • Family law: Legal aid may help you with child custody or divorce matters. Contact your local legal aid office or ask the Judge to appoint one for legal aid representation in court.
  • Housing law: Legal aid can help you if you are facing eviction or foreclosure.
  • Public benefits: Welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or other problems receiving benefits might be resolved through legal aid.

Other problems, such as immigration, consumer issues, and disabilities, may also be dealt with by legal aid offices. It is common for legal aid offices to focus on a single area of law, for example, housing or disability law.

How does legal aid help?

As part of the access to justice process, legal aid is crucial because it gives the poor, marginalized, and disadvantaged better access to justice. It also drives the overarching goal of the 2030 Agenda: to leave no one behind.

Legal aid helps these individuals navigate a justice system that can often seem overwhelming and complicated. It reduces stress for families and communities with:

  • Detention time for suspects
  • Unjust convictions
  • Mismanagement of justice and bribery
  • Reoffending and victimization rates

During a crisis, legal aid is essential to help people protect their rights, access essential services, and ensure that states respect international human rights norms when implementing emergency measures.

The good news is that there are agencies in all 50 states that can assist. Enter an address or city here to find an LSC-funded legal aid organization near you if you need help with a legal issue.

American legal aid providers near you

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is the largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans. Approximately 90% of LSC's Congressional appropriation supports 134 independent nonprofit legal aid programs across the country with more than 800 offices.

LSC board members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They assist families living at or below 125% of federal poverty. Nationally, LSC-funded organizations provide about 25% of civil legal aid.

Other legal aid programs

But several hundred nonprofit civil legal aid programs are independently run and do not receive LSC funding. In addition to providing more generalized services, including legal aid, coordinating pro bono programs, and assisting with self-help, they may focus on populations or issues (e.g., children, homeless, disabled, veterans, and so on).

You can receive free legal aid from:

  • Legal aid nonprofits
  • Pro bono volunteers (attorneys, students, paralegals)
  • Law schools
  • Self-help centers based in courts,
  • Online technologies–websites that gather legal information and assemble documents

It is important to note that many of these programs and services are not restricted to people who earn up to 125% of the federal poverty line. Some programs may have funding that allows them to serve older Americans or domestic violence victims regardless of their income level.

To maximize limited resources, LSC encourages all organizations to partner and collaborate with other public, and private funders of civil legal aid, including:

  • Federal, State, And Local Governments
  • Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTAs)
  • State Access to Justice Commissions
  • Private Bars
  • Philanthropic Foundations

Consider your needs before looking for an attorney. A variety of legal aid programs are available, including

Legal Aid Programs

Programs What they do
Legal Services Corporation (LSC) If you live in a low-income area, you can find legal aid in your area. Get legal advice and free legal aid near you. Low- and moderate-income individuals can use these services.
Law Help Interactive Free legal forms, such as identity theft, uncontested divorce, landlord/tenant disputes, visitation rights, etc.
American Bar Association Free Legal Answers Low-income citizens can ask lawyers questions online. Crime-related questions won't be answered.
Directory of Law School Pro Bono Programs In many law schools, there is a formal pro bono program. Locate ones in your area.

Legal aid resources for specific groups

In non-criminal cases or "civil" cases, a free lawyer is not always available to you. The poor can receive free legal aid through pro bono programs. The elderly, disabled, domestic violence victims, military enlistees, and people in other special circumstances may get help regardless of their income.

But because of their minimal budgets and resources, community-based programs typically can only handle some cases and may turn away many applicants.

Legal Aid for Special Groups

Group Program/Website What they do
Military and Veterans Stateside Legal Veterans and military families can get free legal aid.
Legal Help for Veterans Veterans Affairs offers free legal clinics and other resources.
Armed Forces Legal aid You can find legal aid offices at nearby military installations.
People with Disabilities National Disability Rights Network Find legal advocacy services for people with disabilities by state.
Seniors Eldercare Locator Locate aging and legal services in your city and state.
Pension Rights Center Pension, profit-sharing, and retirement savings plan problems? Get free legal help.

Does everyone have the right to legal aid?

The Constitution guarantees free legal aid if you cannot afford a lawyer and are charged with a crime that can lead to imprisonment. Request a public defender at your first court appearance if you find yourself in this situation.

A court will typically appoint a private lawyer and pay them with county funds or a public defender program to represent someone "indigent" - with few assets and no money for an attorney. Some programs allow public defenders to charge an "application fee," but the amount is minimal.

What are the benefits of legal aid?

As part of legal aid programs, the following benefits are available:

Access to basic needs, including:

  • SNAP, School Lunch Program, SCHIP, TANF, SSI, and other government benefits and disaster assistance
  • Social Security Disability Income (SSDI)
  • veterans
  • FEMA)
  • Loans for repairs, foreclosures, evictions, unsafe housing, housing assistance
  • Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, Medicare

Assurance to stability and safety, like:

  • Violence against women, stalking, abuse of children and elders
  • Divorce, adoption, guardianship, child support, family law
  • Student discipline hearings and accommodations to keep children and youth in school

Economic support to individuals, such as:

  • Providing workers better pay
  • Ensuring employers provide we safe working conditions
  • Securing driver's licenses
  • Gert mg accommodations for disabled workers
  • Help in filing taxes and receiving low-income tax credits
  • Enhance consumer protection from fraud and scams, predatory lending, unfair debt collection practices, and debt management

Education and self-help in the community:

  • Online information and chat tools
  • Workshops
  • Phone helplines
  • Medical/legal partnerships
  • Downloadable court forms

The resources help people understand their rights and responsibilities, locate legal aid when needed, and self-represent if required.

Can I still get legal representation if I do not qualify for legal aid?

Yes. You can find a licensed private lawyer for a reduced fee by contacting your local bar association's lawyer referral service. The lawyer will meet with you for less than $50 for 30 minutes to discuss your case before hiring a lawyer to work on your case and carefully review the fee agreement.

Medical malpractice, car accidents, and workers' compensation cases often come with no fee since the lawyer won't be paid unless your case is successful. Alternatively, you can contact your local bar association to see if they offer any of the following free services:

  • Project for volunteer lawyers
  • A pro bono project
  • Legal workshop for free
  • Self-help clinics

Check out the ABA's Find Legal Help resources to find a bar association and other lawyer referral services in your area.

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