If you are charged with a crime which may result in jail time, and if you cannot afford an attorney, the court will usually appoint a lawyer at no charge. The lawyer who will represent you in criminal cases is either a public defender or an attorney in private practice who has experience in criminal cases and is paid through a separate fund.

In order to qualify for an attorney at no cost, you must be able to show that you are unable to pay for an attorney because of lack of finances. Some Courts may require that documents be filled out in order to prove your inability to pay.

For Criminal Cases

In criminal cases, if you qualify for a free attorney, the judge will assign a lawyer to represent you. In such cases the attorney is paid for by public funds. The attorneys appointed by the court are trained attorneys. They are as prepared to represent a private citizen accused of a crime as the District Attorney General is prepared to prosecute that crime.

If the Court appoints an attorney to represent you but you are able to pay a part of the cost, the Court may require you to make payments into the Court. This will of course depend on your ability to pay.

If you can afford an attorney, on the other hand, you may employ a private attorney of your choice at your expense.

Whether you can afford to employ an attorney of your choice, or you have an attorney appointed for you by the court at no obligation to you other than to the extent that you are able to pay, it is important that you have an attorney to assist and represent you at all phases of the criminal proceeding.

For a Civil Suit

In a civil suit, the general rule is that you do not have a right to an appointed lawyer. Therefore, if you have a case other than a criminal case you need to obtain a lawyer of your choice. There are cases that a private attorney will handle without charging you a fee for his services. These are cases in which the attorney believes that fees can be obtained from the other party to the lawsuit. This arrangement is known as a contingent fee and does not depend on your ability to pay. In addition some attorneys will arrange for fees to be paid over an extended period of time.

If you have a civil case that a private attorney will not accept on a contingent-fee basis, you may choose to seek assistance from a legal service organization. These organizations are independent not-for-profit law offices that provide free civil legal assistance to persons whose total/gross household income and assets are below federal income guidelines.

There are certain types of cases that Legal Aid is prohibited by federal regulations from accepting. Additionally, due to limited resources, Legal Aid cannot accept all cases for representation and has to establish case acceptance priorities. To the extent resources permit, Legal Aid organizations provide legal assistance in the areas of family law, especially domestic violence; public entitlements, such as TennCare, food stamps, Social Security, etc.; housing law, including both public and private housing; consumer law, and community economic development. Legal Aid also offers special programming in elder law issues, health insurance counseling, and fair housing.

This information is provided as a public service by the Tennessee Bar Association. It is basic legal information and should not be considered legal advice or as a substitute for legal advice. You should consult an attorney if you have questions concerning a specific situation.