In criminal court, where you’re the defendant and can’t afford private legal representation, the court will appoint a public defender to argue your case. However, civil proceedings are different. By their very nature, such cases are discretionary. Therefore you do not have an automatic right to an attorney in civil litigation.
You cannot simply refuse to be sued either. If you ignore the summons, after 20 days, a default judgment will be issued against you. Statistically, such decisions will tend to favor the plaintiff. So instead, you should answer the summons and secure some form of legal representation.
Answering the summons may seem a daunting and financially harmful situation, but there are ways to address it without breaking the bank. Whether you’re facing an adversarial divorce, being sued for breach of contract, or are in dispute with a business partner, there are ways to secure some form of legal advice or representation for little or no money.
This article will outline various possibilities you might investigate and end with long with a strong warning against going it alone.
OPTION 1: PRO-BONO or CONTINGENCY REPRESENTATION
If you feel your case has real merit, and you can convince an attorney that there’s a strong likelihood of you winning, then you may be able to attach a lawyer working on a pro bono or contingency basis.
Pro bono means the lawyer takes no fee and no share of any money awarded if you win. In most cases, attorneys will even cover their legal fees. However, such cases are often taken on by lawyers working for non-profits, where there is a clear moral case that will bring kudos to the legal firm or undertake such a case as an act of charity.
You are more likely to secure an attorney working on a contingency basis. This means that if you lose the case, you’ll pay nothing (or sometimes court costs only), but if you win, the lawyer will take a percentage of the sum awarded by the court.
The proportion of the fee that your representative takes will depend on whatever terms you have agreed in your attorney-client retainer agreement.
OPTION TWO: LEGAL AID SOCIETIES
In 1974 Congress established the non-profit organization Legal Services Corporation, which funds 132 independent legal aid societies in every state (plus Washington D.C. and dependent territories). These organizations will provide you with free legal consultations and, potentially, representation depending on your financial circumstances.
They have a general advice site that might provide helpful input: lawhelp.org.
As these societies are funded to help people on low incomes, this option may not be open to you if you fall outside their administrative criteria.
However, you can still turn to these organizations for initial advice and signposting to alternative low-cost options.
OPTION THREE: CONTACT A LAW SCHOOL
Many trainee attorneys enroll in pro bono work before they pass the bar exam as a way of gaining vital experience in providing legal advice and encountering live cases. While they won’t physically represent you in court, the brightest and best student attorneys should be able to advise on the best legal strategies to adopt.
Contact the law department at your local university or check out the directory of legal schools in the U.S. held by the Association of American Law Schools.
OPTION FOUR: COUNTY OR STATE BAR ASSOCIATIONS
These regional professional associations of local attorneys often operate pro bono helplines or offer free or low-cost advice appointments.
Here’s a listing of state bar associations.
Alternatively, for both state and county-level bar associations, the Bar Association Directory may be helpful. As well as advice, your local state or county bar association may hold listings of newly qualified or certified attorneys who might benefit from the experience of a pro bono or contingency arrangement.
OPTION FIVE: TRY THE SMALL CLAIMS COURT
If you are the plaintiff rather than the defendant, you may opt to pursue financial suits through the small claims court. In these courts, as in a county or city courthouse, you are not obliged to have legal representation. However, note that the amount you can claim in damages is minor and will vary from state to state, usually between $3000 – $5000.
Furthermore, if the defendant has no money to pay awarded damages, you may still be stuck trying to recoup. Court fees do apply, but these tend to be between $30 and $75 per suit. This is a good option if you know your adversary can afford the sum they owe and refuse to pay.
This route may not be open to you if you are the defendant in a lawsuit since it will be tried in whichever court has issued the summons.
OPTION SIX: CONTACT THE CITY COURTHOUSE
Nobody knows the roster of local attorneys better than your local courthouse, so this is a reliable source if you are seeking pro bono or contingency assistance. If you are undergoing an uncontested divorce, some courts even offer a free service to help you file the paperwork.
In other eventualities, courts should have unofficial lists of local attorneys seeking work. These might not be the top-flight lawyers (think a shade above Saul Goodman), but they know far more than you about the workings of the law.
OPTION SEVEN: SEEK A FREE CONSULTATION
Many attorneys offer a free 30- or 60-minute consultation.
In part, this is to ascertain whether your case might be a good fit for the firm and whether the lawyer is simpatico to your own needs and situation. This first meeting is an excellent opportunity to ask the tricky questions and gain valuable insight into the lawsuit’s chances going your way.
Attend with a list of questions prepared to make the most of the meeting. Doing so will demonstrate to the attorney that you are a thoughtful and trustworthy individual. That could go a long way towards them lowering their fee to a reasonable level.
There’s no harm in seeking a second or third opinion either, then deciding which, if any, of the attorneys you want to engage.
OPTION EIGHT: PRO SE REPRESENTATION
Pro Se is Latin for “for oneself,” and it’s the legal definition of going it alone and unrepresented. In a civil suit, this is perfectly permissible but rarely advised.
Many litigants have assumed they possess the innate logical and persuasive skills to represent their side of a lawsuit. This is seldom the case. From Ted Bundy down to the average Joe, defendants have sought to be the masters or mistresses of their destiny. Here are just a few reasons not to go down this route:
- Court etiquette is complex and unforgiving.
- You risk alienating the judge with incompetent performance.
- The research you’ll have to do will be demanding.
- You lack the case history to bring to bear.
- You’ll be up against a real attorney.
We could go on, but you probably get the point.
Experienced attorneys rely on the inexperience of pro se litigants to win civil suits. Therefore, it is always best to seek as much professional legal advice as possible before considering this last resort option.