This topic will help you understand the various kinds of cases that legal aid offices typically handle, and the roles of paralegals and legal aid lawyers.
Legal aid organizations are nonprofit corporations that provide free legal help to low-income clients with noncriminal problems, including cases in some of the following areas:
Public Benefits. This includes problems with welfare, food stamps, medical assistance, Supplemental Security Income, Social Security and unemployment compensation. If you have been denied benefits, have been asked to repay benefits, or feel you are not getting the benefits you deserve, a legal aid office may be able to help you.
Housing Problems. This includes evictions, lockouts, confiscation of personal property, foreclosures, housing discrimination, disputes over repairs, rent, contracts, deposits, or difficulties with public housing.
Consumer Problems. This includes debt problems, problems with contracts or warranties, repossession, wage garnishment, discrimination and counseling on small claims court and bankruptcy procedures.
Family Law Problems. This includes divorce, adoption, custody, support, visitation or parenting time, domestic violence, guardianship, restraining orders, defense in paternity suits, and modification of decrees. Most legal aid offices limit divorce representation to certain types of situations. Some offices do not take any divorce cases except in the case of an emergency.
Senior Law Problems. This includes Medicaid, Medicare, guardianship defense and issues involving nursing homes or other types of care facilities.
Juvenile Law Problems. This includes expulsions and suspensions from school and other disputes involving schools.
Immigration. Some programs handle a limited number of cases in the area of immigration law.
These are the types of cases that legal aid offices can often handle. However, the types of cases each particular legal aid office accepts may vary. The community, clients and legal aid staff have worked together to determine the highest priority issues for low-income people in their area.
Legal aid offices do not handle criminal cases. The court will appoint a lawyer to handle a criminal case when the client cannot afford legal help.
In addition, legal aid cannot accept what are known as “fee-generating” cases. In a fee-generating case, a lawyer’s fee is paid out of the money awarded to the winning party. When you call legal aid about your problem, they will tell you whether or not it is a fee-generating case.
Sometimes, a legal aid office may not be able to accept a case because there are not enough legal aid lawyers available to provide assistance to all eligible people. However, in some communities, private lawyers volunteer their time to represent low-income clients at no cost and accept cases that the legal aid office is unable to take.
In order to help as many eligible people as possible, most legal aid offices also use paralegals to assist in their cases. Paralegals are not lawyers and cannot practice law, but they can represent clients in administrative hearings. For example, a paralegal may represent clients in hearings involving welfare, Supplemental Security Income or unemployment benefits. Paralegals can interview clients and advise them of their benefits. They also research and investigate cases and help negotiate with merchants, landlords or government officials. Paralegals are supervised by lawyers and help provide legal services to clients.
Just like private lawyers, legal aid lawyers and paralegals work for the best possible resolution of the case for their client. And, just like communication between private lawyers and their clients, communication between legal aid clients and their lawyers or paralegals is confidential.
If you would like help with your legal problem and feel that you may qualify for legal aid, call the office nearest your home to find out if you are eligible.
Updated October 2011
Public Benefits Hotline: 1-800-520-5292
Mondays: 1-4 pm
Thursdays: 1-4 pm
For a list of programs by city or county visit Oregon Law Help