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Can't Afford An Attorney? What Are Your Options?

As one of the highest-paid professions in the United States, attorney services are often expensive. This can present a problem when you need legal services. What can you do if you are involved in a lawsuit but can't afford an attorney? Read on to learn more about low- or no-cost legal services that may be available in your area.

Can you request that the court appoint you an attorney?

If you've been charged with a crime and are required to appear in court, you can request a court-appointed public defender to handle your case at no cost to you. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution entitles all citizens to be defended by counsel when accused of a crime. If you cannot afford your own attorney, one will be appointed for you. These attorneys are often paid through court fees collected from criminal defendants, as well as federal and state grant funds and tax revenue.

However, if the case is a civil (non-criminal) matter, you are not entitled to free counsel, even if you are sued by someone else and unable to afford an attorney to defend yourself.

What are some other low-cost legal options?

There should be several other free or low-cost options available in your area. The first is a dedicated Legal Aid services organization. Often present in large cities, these organizations will provide many civil legal services (often handling disability filings, small claims, housing discrimination, divorces, and custody disputes) on a sliding scale—meaning the more you earn, the more you'll pay.

If there is no Legal Aid organization in your area, your local court may have some resources. Most states encourage their attorneys to take on pro bono ("for the public good") cases along with their paid cases. As with their list of available public defenders, many courts often have a list of available pro bono attorneys who will handle a variety of matters upon request. If your case is complex, you may only be able to obtain a pro bono attorney for a limited part of that case.

You may also be able to set up a payment plan with a private attorney. Although you'll still be charged this attorney's normal rates, you will be given a longer period of time over which to make these payments, making them more affordable.

Should you go it alone?

If you can't afford (or don't want to pay for) an attorney, you may be tempted to handle your legal matter yourself. However, if you do, you will be held to the same standard as a licensed attorney—there is no lesser evidentiary requirement for self-represented litigants. So be sure that you are prepared to argue your case using the applicable rules of evidence and procedure.