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What is Legal Aid?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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Legal aid is assistance provided to people of low income who need help with legal matters. Legal aid organizations can be found in many regions of the world and are especially common in urban areas. People can receive free or low cost legal help through a legal aid office once they demonstrate that they are qualified to receive assistance.

While the law guarantees the provision of an attorney to people accused in criminal cases, no such provisions are provided for people involved in civil matters. This puts people of low income at a disadvantage when they are in legal situations that involve civil law, as they may not be able to afford a lawyer to provide help. People of low income can find themselves in a variety of situations that call for a lawyer. These can include landlord-tenant disputes, appeals for government assistance, such as disability payments, and disputes with insurance companies.

Funding for legal aid comes from a variety of sources. Governments may provide grants to help such organizations pay attorneys and maintain premises. These organizations also rely on donations, grants from nongovernmental organizations, and volunteer hours from attorneys, paralegals, and other legal professionals. Depending on how well funded a legal aid office is, it may be able to provide free help to all or it may require payments from some clients.

Affordable legal services provide people of low income with a means of accessing the legal system. With the assistance of a lawyer, people can file suit for damages if they are injured, fight a denial of benefits, or work out an employment or housing dispute. Legal aid lawyers can also help clients network with social services agencies. These agencies can provide additional assistance and make clients aware of services they are entitled to.

People who find themselves in need of a lawyer to handle a civil matter who cannot afford one can find assistance by asking for a referral from a bar organization or using a search engine to look up “legal aid” and their area. When bringing a matter to legal aid, people should bring as much documentation as possible, including any correspondence sent. Some clinics accept walk in clients, while others request that people make appointments to see an attorney. A phone call to this type of organization should put callers in contact with a staff member who can answer questions about hours and appointment availability.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By lovealot — On Sep 26, 2011

When you discover that you need to find free legal aid for a civil law situation, you have to make sure that you have asked family members for help first and that you gather all information about your financial situation, so that you can show that you qualify for help.

I think it is important to be prepared to be honest in the details of what legal problem you need help with.

I applaud the lawyers, paralegals and other legal workers, who volunteer their time to help those in need of free assistance.

By BoniJ — On Sep 25, 2011

Legal assistance is so expensive and so important, low income people certainly deserve to be able to get free legal aid or at least part- pay, if they can. I know it seems like the government funding is being drained, but some services, like free legal aid, are so crucial,we must provide assistance.

For example, if a mother is not receiving child support from her ex-husband, the children can really be affected in so many ways. If the mother has no money to hire a lawyer,she needs help.

Free legal aid is a good thing!

By John57 — On Sep 24, 2011

@honeybees - I also know someone who was faced with a similar situation. The legal aid office was able to direct her toward other services that were helpful.

There are many programs out there that are very helpful and beneficial that a lot of people don't even know exist.

Many of the services they referred her to were able to help her and my friend was eventually able to get representation through one of these other agencies.

By honeybees — On Sep 23, 2011

My only experience with legal aid was when a friend of mine contacted legal aid during her divorce.

This was a really bad situation and she had no money for an attorney and really needed one. She is physically disabled and had also been the victim of domestic abuse, but she was turned down by legal aid.

They told her that she didn't meet the criteria or they didn't have anyone available to help her. This was a big blow for her because if she didn't meet the criteria, I don't know who would.

By strawCake — On Sep 23, 2011

@sunnySkys - The government already provides grants for legal aid organizations. In my opinion, that's enough. This country is already strapped for cash as it is, we can't go around funding everything with government money.

That being said, I do think legal aid is a worthy cause to donate money to, if you have the cash to spare. One of my neighbors had to use legal aid in a wrongful death suit when her husband passed away. They did a great job, and she won her suit.

By sunnySkys — On Sep 22, 2011

You know, it just seems backward the the government provides free attorneys for criminals, but not for people who need help in civil suits. I think there should be government funded offices to help out in civil suits too.

In the meantime, I'm glad such a thing as legal aid exists. I don't make that much money, but I make enough to get by. However, I don't think I could afford a lawyer if I got into a civil dispute. And I know there are a lot of people far worse off than I am!

By drtroubles — On Sep 21, 2011

Low-income legal aid is especially vital for the elderly in my opinion. My family and I got into a legal battle with the nursing home my grandmother was staying at over the conditions there, and she didn't have any money to pay for legal fees. Unfortunately, the rest of the family was pretty cash strapped as well.

Legal aid stepped in and helped us fight for better conditions at the nursing home and we managed to win our suit against them. I would hate to think of what would have happened without legal aid, as we couldn't afford to move our grandmother to a different nursing home.

By Mae82 — On Sep 21, 2011

Free legal aid is a really important service that I am glad is accessible to so many people. My aunt is in low-income housing and she got a lot of legal aid advice when she was having trouble with her landlord over repairs and an unfair rent increase.

I think that legal aid advice is invaluable for those on low-income because there is really little else they can do about resolving issues. Often people take advantage of those without the financial resources to defend themselves. I am happy to report that my aunt's landlord started to do repairs once legal aid was brought into the picture.

By oasis11 — On Sep 21, 2011

I think that legal aid attorneys are a special breed of attorneys. Many of these people chose to serve the public because they are compassionate people that want to make a difference. My sister is one of those people. She has been a legal aid attorney in New York City for the past twenty –five years because she wants to help poor people that are having trouble with their landlords and need help in resolving these matters.

Her clients live in a tiny rent controlled apartments that have rat infestations or other deplorable living conditions that make it difficult for the family to live day to day. My sister usually gets resolution for her clients and they are really grateful to her because these people would never be able to afford traditional attorneys fees.

My sister was even honored by the New York Bar for her service to the public in an awards ceremony a few years ago. I am really proud of her.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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