You've probably heard of legal aid, but most people have no idea exactly what it is, how to find it, or how to access it when they're in need. Legal aid is government or privately funded assistance that's designed for those who cannot afford to retain legal representation. In other words, legal aid provides lawyers for people who can't afford them.

In order to determine whether you qualify for legal aid, a number of factors will be taken into account, in particular your income. But before you can apply for legal aid, the first thing to determine is whether your legal matter is criminal or civil in nature.

Criminal legal aid is provided in the form of legal assistance from a public defender if you have been charged with a crime that may result in jail time. A right to an attorney is a constitutional right, so a court will assign a public defender to handle your case if you are unable to afford one. The public defender program is funded by the government with the aim of enabling access to justice and a fair trial for all. The various courts within your state may have different criteria for court-appointed lawyers, and your court may well pay a private lawyer to represent you.

Civil legal aid may be granted to persons who cannot afford legal representation for non-criminal matters involving health, disability, HIV/AIDS, employment, family issues, elder care, housing, benefits, immigration, domestic violence and prisoners' rights. Civil legal aid helps low-income people defend and assert important legal rights, but you do not have a constitutional right to civil legal aid. The main factors that will be taken into account in deciding whether to grant civil legal aid include your location, your safety, your health and your income.

Whether you're eligible to receive legal aid depends on where you live, as some states assess poverty at different levels. In general, if your annual income level is at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines, you will be eligible for legal aid. There are exceptions to this rule, and your local legal aid office will be able to advise you further and can provide full details of legal aid programs. The legal aid offices are staffed by lawyers who specialize in dealing with the sort of problems that are typically faced by those who cannot afford representation. They are usually government-funded lawyers who represent people in a variety of legal situations such as eviction defense, denial of benefits, and consumer credit problems.

The American Bar Association’s guide to legal help is a useful tool for finding out about legal aid in your state. The ABA has reported an increasing need for free legal assistance throughout the country, particularly in the field of evictions and foreclosures.

Legal aid can be provided in many forms:

  • Legal representation in individual cases when required.
  • Clinics, where legal problems can be discussed and addressed on site by pro bono attorneys, or scheduled for follow-up assistance.
  • Self-help facilities and advice, including workshops, online chat sites, downloadable court forms and telephone help lines.
  • Connections to other social service providers as required.

Victims of domestic violence, or those in fear for their safety, may be able to obtain legal aid by accessing the National Domestic Violence Hotline. This organization's trained advocates can be contacted around the clock for support and advice, including help to collate evidence of abuse.

Persons with a civil rights action may also be able to obtain legal aid. Civil rights legislation protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishments, as well as unreasonable searches and seizures. Civil rights issues may arise from a multitude of factors including discrimination based on age, gender, disability, religion, color or race. If you're seeking free legal counsel, you may also find lawyers in your area with a particular passion for your type of rights issue, who will be happy to assist for free—particularly when it might turn into a class action lawsuit. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has provided useful guidance on enforcement of civil rights, which lists contact information for federal agencies and local civil rights offices.

People living with HIV/AIDS should also inquire into their eligibility for legal aid in their home state. There are several legal services programs that provide free legal aid to poor clients who have contracted HIV or AIDS. They will usually provide advice on insurance issues, estate planning, housing or employment discrimination, and other family law matters. You may wish to consult the various HIV/AIDS organizations in your state for further advice.

Disabled U.S. veterans may be able to gain free legal assistance through the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which provides services for veterans who were injured or permanently disabled as a result of military service.

Immigrants are also entitled to free legal aid. The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), an agency of the Department of Justice, provides a list of free legal service providers by state. You will need to conduct your own research before deciding which immigration practitioner to use, as the EOIR does not endorse any of the attorneys on the list. Most of the lawyers will provide standard immigration services including those relating to visas, green cards and deportation.

Community organizations and individuals may be able to benefit from free legal advice in cases where they are trying to improve the social or economic climate of a disadvantaged neighborhood. Community problems may include neighborhood deterioration, inadequate housing, homelessness, unemployment, drug abuse, racial tension and crime. Check with your state's individual community legal programs for specific eligibility requirements.

Persons already in receipt of financial assistance—namely those who receive financial assistance through other public aid programs, such as Supplemental Security Income or the food stamps program—will usually be eligible for free legal services as well.

If you believe that you might qualify, you should contact your nearest legal aid office for advice. The demand for legal aid far outstrips the resources available as the size of the eligible population continues to grow. There have been significant cutbacks in federal funding over the years, and you may find that legal aid is only available for selected types of legal problems. Even in circumstances where it is available for your particular type of case, you could be in for a lengthy wait.