In the United States, legal aid services are provided by community clinics and public interest law firms. Because so many people seek out their help, these groups put restrictions on who can use their services. These restrictions are generally income based. The groups also limit the kinds of cases that they can handle, due largely to funding and the availability of qualified attorneys to take the case. Typical cases handled by legal clinics include immigration, discrimination, domestic violence, evictions, and the denial of government benefits.
Free legal clinics are staffed partially by new law school graduates under the supervision of an attorney who is dedicated to public service. Most states impose pro bono requirements on lawyers who practice in that state. A legal aid society is a good place for these lawyers to volunteer their time and find cases that fit their specialty and allow them to fulfill their pro bono obligations to the state. This means that people in need of free legal services can occasionally secure the services of a highly qualified and respected attorney in the area.
When it comes to the legal system, many people are effectively shut out. This is because they cannot afford to pay for legal representation. This is one reason why many feel that justice is reserved for those who can afford to pay for it. Free legal services are a way to bridge the income divide and allow lower middle and lower class people to obtain effective legal representation.
Legal representation in the United States is a guaranteed right only in criminal cases. Some states extend that guarantee to quasi criminal proceedings like termination of parental rights. In 1974, the Congress establishes a national source of funding for legal services for those in need, but the amount of funding fluctuates dramatically depending on which political party is in power.
It is not difficult to find a legal aid office. There are offices in all major cities. Some local bar associations have their own legal aid offices. In Orlando, the Orange County Bar Association requires all of its lawyers to either participate in legal aid services, or provide a substantial fee donation. Still, the amount of legal services that are available is small when compared to the demand.
Because of limited resources, these legal societies do not accept all types of cases. Legal Aid of West Virginia has a list of cases that they do not handle. As a general rule, they will not accept cases that can be taken by a private lawyer on a contingency basis. This typically includes workers compensation cases, car accidents, medical malpractice, and personal injury cases. They are prohibited by federal law from taking class action cases, criminal cases, and cases filed by people who are currently incarcerated. They also will not represent people accused of domestic violence, and cannot take cases that conflict with each other.
Legal aid helps to make legal services available to everyone regardless of income. Their resources and funding are limited, and there are some cases that they cannot take. Although they are helping, it is not enough. Many people still forego legal representation because they cannot afford it, effectively denying themselves of legal rights. Contingency fees allow some people to hire lawyers they otherwise could not afford, but this method of payment is not always appropriate. While legal services are now more available then they were prior to 1974, funding is not consistent. The ability of someone to find counsel can be seriously affected by the political party in power, and many citizens still find themselves shut out of the legal process economically.