The responsibility to perform pro bono services sets the legal profession apart from other societal roles. Pro bono opportunities offered by law schools teach students that for the economically disadvantaged, the inability to obtain legal services for basic needs, can have dire consequences.
Students learn firsthand that for many people, pro bono legal assistance is vital to maintaining minimum levels of basic needs such as government benefits, income, shelter, utilities, child support and physical protection.
The special skills they develop during law school can significantly benefit the underprivileged.
Both law students and lawyers need to place greater emphasis on their ethical responsibility to provide pro bono services, in order to bridge the rapidly growing gap between the legal needs of those who cannot afford legal services and the resources available to meet those needs.
Who is entitled to a free lawyer?
The Constitution guarantees free legal help for people who are charged with a crime which might lead to imprisonment and who cannot afford a lawyer. If you find yourself in this situation, request the appointment of a public defender when you first appear in court.
When a court decides someone is "indigent" with few assets and no funds to pay an attorney - generally either a private lawyer will be appointed by the court and paid with county funds, or a public defender program will be appointed to represent the person. Some public defender programs are permitted to charge an "application fee" from clients, though this is usually a small amount.
Who else qualifies for a free lawyer?
In non-criminal or "civil" cases, you do not have the right to a free lawyer. But there are many legal aid and pro bono programs that provide free legal help for the poor in civil cases. These programs generally help people whose income is less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, although in some cases they help people whose income is slightly higher.
In addition, people who are elderly, disabled, the victims of domestic violence, enlisted in the military or in other special circumstances may be eligible for help even if their income is a little higher. Because these community-based programs often operate with very small budgets and don't have enough resources to serve all eligible people, they handle only certain types of cases and must turn away many people who ask for help.