Legal aid lawyers are legal professionals who work at least part-time advocating for the rights of low income or otherwise disadvantaged clients. In most countries, the legal system is complex, and hiring a lawyer to help launch or defend a case can be very costly. It is the aim of legal aid lawyers to make legal representation available to anyone who needs it. They help clients with necessary filings or legal paperwork, provide legal advice, and represent the clients in trial, if necessary. In nearly all respects, a legal aid attorney’s representation is no different from traditional representation, except that he or she is not usually paid — or at least not paid very much.
Most legal aid attorneys and lawyers work for nonprofit organizations that charge clients only on a contingency basis or on a sliding scale, depending on the client’s circumstances. Legal aid clinics are often located in low-income communities, and handle cases on a walk-in basis. Lawyers in these settings generally meet with potential clients on a first-come, first-served basis, listening to the client’s dilemma and determining if legal action could help.
Whether or not legal aid attorneys elect to take on cases depends in part on their perceptions of how strong the client’s case is, but can also be dictated by the policies of the larger aid organization that employs them. Many providers of low-cost or free legal aid will only assist clients whose income is below a certain threshold. Others have policies against helping residents of other states, cities, or locales, or limit their representation to certain kinds of cases.
People often seek low-cost legal aid from clinics when they have been sued and are not sure what to do, or when they have a serious grievance against another person: a dispute with a landlord, for instance, or a child custody problem. Some clinics are specifically focused on one area of law, such as an immigration aid clinic. Most legal aid clinics are limited to handling cases that are civil in nature. Criminal proceedings are often much more serious, and criminal defendants who cannot afford lawyers on their own are typically assigned to a public defender by the court.
The only time that legal aid lawyers will work on criminal cases is when those cases are on appeal. Although many legal systems will furnish representation to individuals charged with a crime, few will extend the same service to defendants who wish to appeal a conviction or other unfavorable finding. Legal aid lawyers will, on occasion, champion the cause of defendants they perceive to have been wrongly convicted, or the victims of some procedural or judicial error.
Not all legal aid lawyers work in the non-profit sector. Many large law firms have pro bono, or volunteer, departments and incentives, which encourage regularly practicing lawyers to take on an occasional legal aid case. Law firms who support these kinds of services usually pre-select the cases that lawyers will assist with. As such, lawyers in these sorts of aid situations do not participate in choosing which cases to take. They focus the majority of their attention on providing complete representation, the same as they would to a paying client.