In the United States the law is generally divided into two categories – criminal and civil.
There are Public Defenders or court appointed attorneys in every state and in federal courts that can help people who cannot afford a lawyer and who are charged with serious crimes – usually any case in which you could possibly go to jail. Every person charged with a crime has the right to have an attorney represent them in court. Standards for how much income or assets you can have and still qualify for a public defender or court appointed lawyer vary from state to state.
Some of the military legal assistance offices will advise active duty or retired military personnel (not veterans) on minor misdemeanor charges, including traffic offenses. For more serious charges you will need to get your own lawyer or have a court-appointed attorney. Public defenders and court-appointed lawyers are different than legal aid attorneys and in most states they are completely separate organizations. Unfortunately, none of the legal services organizations funded by the Legal Services Corporation can help with criminal cases.
How do I go about getting a lawyer to defend me against criminal charges if I cannot afford one?
Check the phone directory to see if there is a public defender office in your area. Or call your local bar association. Or ask the judge or other court or jail official in your case. The first time you go to court, if you do not already have a lawyer, be sure to tell the judge that you cannot afford a lawyer and that you need one. You should NEVER talk about what happened in your case with anyone including the police, a judge, or a prosecutor until you have had a chance to speak to your own lawyer. You will need to provide information about your income and assets.
The National Legal Aid and Defender Association is an organization of lawyers and other organizations that help people with criminal or civil legal problems. They do not provide direct legal help themselves, but may be able to assist you in finding one. Check the NLADA website for links to websites of indigent defense agencies near you.
State Veterans Courts
Several states have specialized Veterans Courts that provide alternative sentencing for some veterans. If you are charged with a crime, check with your local court or public defender office about whether this exists in your state and how the program works.
June 2010. Updated 2018, 2020