Finding Free Legal Services for Low Income Families

Where to go to find free legal assistance will depend on what type of legal problem you have and where you are located.

The first big question is “Is this a criminal problem or a civil problem?” Criminal law is what happens when you are arrested and charged with a crime. Civil law is how we use the courts to settle disputes with other people.

Free legal services for criminal defendants are provided by public defenders, lawyers who make a living providing legal assistance to criminal defendants who cannot afford their own lawyer. You’ve heard it on all the cop shows on TV “if you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you.” Every court must make those defenders available to you for all but the most minor crimes. If you are charged with a federal crime (the United States of America is prosecuting you instead of your state or city) each court in the federal system is required to have a “federal defender” system set up to provide free defense for poor defendants. There are some exceptions to this requirement to provide free legal services (such as for very minor crimes) but in most cases if a criminal defendant says “I want a lawyer” the courts will get one to you. If you think you need a lawyer, ask for one immediately.

Free legal services for civil cases (like disputes with a landlord, a bank, a credit card company, or other people) are provided by a patchwork of agencies. But there is a single nationwide organization whose job it is to make sure that those local agencies are taking care of you and to help you find them. It is called the Legal Services Corporation and it is funded by the US Congress. You can find information on them at That website will allow you to search for legal services offices near where you live.

Finally, many local Bar Associations (the local professional organizations for lawyers) will also have what is called a “pro bono” committee. It is short for “pro bono publico” which is Latin for “for the good of the public.” Most lawyers are expected to perform a certain number of hours of work each year helping poor people with legal problems for free. Many local bar agencies will have an “ask a lawyer” day. Even if your case is not severe enough to require a public defender or a legal services lawyer, you can probably call on one of those days and get some time with a lawyer to get some basic advice on simple legal questions.