It is usually when we most need help that it is the hardest to find. This is particularly true when it comes to legal matters. Notice of a legal action immediately conjures up the frightening scenario of hiring an expensive lawyer, often at a time when you can’t possibly afford one. If you’re in that situation, don’t panic. You may be able to find free legal help.
But wait a minute… what happened to those words we always hear on cop shows: “You have the right to an attorney”?
There’s a kink to that. If you’re charged with a criminal offense, you have the right to an attorney. The court will appoint a public defender to represent you if you can’t afford a lawyer. In a civil case you don’t have that right. You are responsible for your own defense.
The Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases
What is the difference between criminal and civil proceedings?
👉 A criminal case is investigated by the police and charges are filed by the government, usually a state government. If you are convicted in a criminal case you can be imprisoned, if the case warrants it.
👉 Civil cases are disputes between two individuals, or an individual and an organization, or two organizations. The court may order the loser of the case to compensate the winner. You cannot be imprisoned over a civil charge, though a judge can have you jailed for contempt of court if you fail to obey a court order.
This table may help to clarify the major differences between civil and criminal case:
|Civil cases||Criminal cases|
|Private dispute filed by an individual, organization, company or corporation (party) against another party.||Crime reported by an individual to the police. Only the Government (State) may file criminal charges in court.|
|Cases involve harm, loss, or injury to one party.||Cases classified as felonies or misdemeanors.|
|The party who complains is called the Plaintiff. The responding party is the Defendant.||The Government is represented by a Prosecutor against the Defendant.|
|Burden of proof lies with Plaintiff. Defendant rebuts to disprove evidence presented by the plaintiff.||Burden of proof lies with the Government.|
|The defendant is found liable or not liable for damages (financial compensation). The amount of compensation is determined by the judge.||The Defendant is found guilty or not guilty. Misdemeanors result in a fine or one year or less of imprisonment. Felonies may result in a fine, more than one year of imprisonment or in extreme cases, the death penalty.|
|No free legal aid provided by the State, even if either party cannot afford a private attorney.||Free legal aid will be provided by the State if the Defendant cannot afford a private attorney.|
|Private funds are required for legal defense.||Public funds pay for State defense, unless you choose to engage your own attorney.|
☝ In many jurisdictions, the most common form of civil case is a contract dispute, and the most common form of dispute involves debt collection. Even relatively small debts can result in legal action against you. It’s important to know what to do if you are sued by a creditor.
A criminal case is generally a more serious problem than a civil case. Criminal penalties are severe and a criminal conviction can remain on your record for many years. That’s why legal representation is guaranteed. Civil cases may be generally less serious, but that guarantee of legal representation is not there. If you are involved in a civil case you will have to arrange your own legal help. But how can you do that if you can’t afford a lawyer?
Finding Free or Low-Cost Legal Help
There are several ways to obtain affordable legal assistance in a civil case.
1. Free Consultation
Many lawyers will provide a free initial consultation, usually by telephone or video conference, lasting around a quarter of an hour. This will help you decide whether or not to pursue a case or define the direction you should follow. A free consultation will not give you representation in court, but it can help you clarify the issues you face and give you an idea of how to fight the charges against you.
☝️ Remember that you can have free consultations with several different lawyers.
2. Approach The Courthouse
One way to look for free legal advice is to approach the courthouse itself. The clerk of the court may well be able to point you in the direction of an inexpensive lawyer.
3. Legal Aid Societies
Legal aid societies are another avenue to consider. These are non-profit organizations (NPO’s) that provide free legal assistance to low-income people. You will need to provide proof of your household income. You will be ineligible if you exceed the maximum qualifying income limit.
The US government’s Legal Services Corporation offers a website, lawhelp.org, that may be able to assist you with finding a legal aid society in your community. The Legal Services Corporation also provides this directory of legal aid options. You can also type the words “legal aid” or “legal services” into a search engine with the name of your town or city and see what comes up.
4. Look for a Pro Bono Lawyer
Pro bono means ‘for the public good’, and refers to services that lawyers provide for free. The American Bar Association urges each lawyer to devote 50 hours per year to pro bono work, and many lawyers meet or exceed this standard. Some states require pro bono hours as a condition for a law license. Many pro bono lawyers will not accept bankruptcy, divorce, or personal injury cases. Some pro bono law providers may prioritize low income individuals or cases they believe have a good probability of success.
There are several ways to find pro bono lawyers. Start with the American Bar Association’s pro bono resource directory. You can also try your state or local bar association. LawHelp.org offers the probono.net website, which can also help you locate a pro bono attorney.
The American Bar Association also offers ABA Free Legal Answers, a site that provides free answers to legal questions. This will not provide you with representation but it can help you decide how to handle a legal situation.
5. Law School
Most law schools offer free legal clinics. Law students assist individuals with legal problems under the supervision of law school professors. These can be an excellent source of legal information and assistance. The American Bar Association offers this directory of public interest clinics offered by law schools.
You may qualify for free or subsidized legal assistance through
- Membership of an organization such as AAA (American Automobile Association).
- Your insurance company (you may have to use the services of their lawyers).
- Your workplace trade union.
If you belong to an organization that might help you, approach them and ask. It’s always worth exploring any option.
7. Social Justice
If your case may place you in a group of people who have suffered similar situations, for example, sexual harassment or racial discrimination, you may find an organization willing to take the case on pro bono. One of these is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
8. Criminal Cases
If you have been charged with a criminal offense but cannot afford a private attorney, the US Constitution guarantees you the right to free legal representation. A public defender will usually be appointed by a judge once you have been formally charged. The attorney allocated to assist you will remain with you for the duration of the case, and the first appeal if your case comes to that point.
If You Are the Plaintiff
Most people who need free or low-cost legal help are being sued. They are the defendants in a case. If you believe that someone has injured you or violated a contract and you wish to initiate legal action, you will be the plaintiff, a somewhat different situation.
All of the free legal assistance options described above can help you file and pursue a lawsuit. You may also have some additional options.
1. Contingency Fee Arrangements
If you intend to sue someone over a personal injury or similar case, a lawyer may agree to take your case on a contingency fee basis. In this case the lawyer will work for a percentage of any award or settlement you may receive. If you lose the case the lawyer will not receive any compensation. Most lawyers will only work on these conditions if they believe that your case is winnable and if they believe the party you are suing has the capacity to pay. If you’re suing your neighbor and your neighbor is broke, a lawyer may not be willing to work for a percentage of an award that will probably never be paid!
⚠️ Contingency fee arrangements usually give the lawyer from 30% to 40% of the award after expenses, which include the attorney’s fees. Fees can add up, so if you win you may take home less than half of the award.
2. Class Action Suits
Some cases are based on injury due to a defective product, exposure to toxic substances, or other conditions that affect a group of people. In this case you may be able to join a class action suit, which is filed by a group. Many class action suits are represented by lawyers working on a contingency fee basis, and they often actively seek out plaintiffs. If your case may involve other people it may be worth doing some research to determine whether a class action is already in progress or whether you may be able to initiate one.
3. Small Claims Court
If your claim is for a relatively small amount you can file a case in Small Claims Court. Be aware that there are limits to the amount that you may claim in a Small Claims Court, and these vary from state to state. You will pay a fee and you will be expected to represent yourself.
These are some common cases that Small Claims Courts often handle:
- Non-payment of a loan.
- Poor workmanship by a contractor.
- Personal injury, such as a dog bite.
It is worth noting that aside from the limit on the amount of the claim, Small Claims Courts will not handle all types of cases.
You cannot use a Small Claims Court to:
- File for divorce.
- Apply for a change of name.
- File for bankruptcy.
- File a lawsuit against the federal government or a federal agency.
Television programs such as Judge Judy, The People’s Court, and Curtis Court have helped to popularize and encourage the public to take their cases to the Small Claims Court, with varying results.
Free legal help is widely available if you know where to look. Free or low-cost lawyers won’t look for you; you’ll have to fund them. The options listed above are starting points. Use them and keep looking, even if one possibility fails. Many people go unrepresented simply because they didn’t know about the available legal options or weren’t confident or assertive enough to pursue them. Don’t fall into that trap. You may have to be persistent, but you can find the help you need.