The justice system is an immensely confusing place. People without much experience in legal matters — either criminal or civil — are often at a loss when attempting to navigate this system. The conventional solution to the confusion is to hire an attorney. What about individuals who don’t have the money to engage a lawyer’s services? That’s what legal aid services are made for.
Legal aid is an umbrella term that covers both legal advice and actual legal representation in court provided at low or no cost. It’s long been recognized that the realities of the legal system discriminate against individuals with minimal financial resources, despite the ideal of equality before the law. Legal aid services exist to try and level the playing field and give poor people a chance to be heard fairly in court.
Legal aid is typically provided in one of three different ways. The “staff attorney” system is employed within state and federal governments to give assistance to low-income clients. Public defenders in criminal trials are one example of this method. “Judicare” is a system where non-profit organizations use their funds to hire attorneys on behalf of the individuals who need them. Finally, the “community clinic” system operates by bringing legal professionals who want to do pro bono (free) work with clients who have limited resources.
Regardless of how it is organized, a legal aid service rarely has the resources available to provide full representation to everyone who inquires about it. Most services have a number of standards they use to prioritize clients and assign their limited resources. Income levels are typically taken into account, as are the types of cases involved. Serious violations of rights (e.g. discrimination, negligence, etc.) tend to be highly prioritized.
Although a legal aid service may not be able to provide a pro bono lawyer to a prospective client, they do generally provide free and sound legal advice that can help individuals who are unfamiliar with the civil or criminal justice systems. They also frequently recommend attorneys who might make a good fit with a client’s needs and ability to pay.
A legal aid service is not the only way to obtain representation or legal advice at minimal cost. One of the main alternatives is working with a lawyer who operates on a “no win, no fee” basis. Legal aid services can often provide better advice, though, because they generally make an effort to help all potential clients. “No win, no fee” attorneys typically only assist clients with strong cases who represent a likely profit to the lawyer.
Legal aid services can often help individuals of limited means answer the most important legal question of all: Is it worth it to take this to court? The lawyers and other professionals staffing legal aid services will be able to offer a reasonable assessment of an individual’s case and explain both the likely costs and outcomes of proceeding with legal action.
While they are far from perfect, legal aid services fulfill a vital role in the justice system. They act as a safety net that prevents some of the most disadvantaged individuals from suffering further mistreatment due to their lack of financial resources. By delivering at least of modicum of legal expertise, they can help anyone take advantage of their legal opportunities.