How to Get a Court Appointed Attorney for Family Law
Family law cases like divorce, child custody, and child support often require legal representation. However, hiring a private attorney can be prohibitively expensive. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may qualify for a court-appointed attorney to represent you for free or at a reduced cost. Here is an overview of how to get a court appointed lawyer for family law cases:
Determine If You Are Eligible
To qualify for a court-appointed attorney, you must demonstrate financial need. Each state has its own eligibility guidelines that consider your income, expenses, assets, and the number of dependents you support. Some key requirements include:
- Income – Your income must fall below a specified threshold, such as 125% of the Federal Poverty Level. Income from all sources, like employment, child support, and government benefits, is considered.
- Assets – You must fall below asset limits, excluding certain exempt assets like a primary home or vehicle. Limits range from $2,500 to $10,000 in assets.
- Expenses – Your necessary monthly expenses for rent, utilities, medical bills, child care, and other basic needs are weighed against your income.
Domestic violence cases often have more flexible eligibility standards to ensure victim safety. Speak to a legal aid organization about specific requirements in your state and situation.
Gather Required Documentation
To verify eligibility, you will need to compile certain documents, including:
- Tax returns for the past 2 years
- Pay stubs showing current income
- Bank statements
- Mortgage or rent receipts
- Bills for medical care, insurance, child support, child care, and other expenses
- Car registration and loan documents
- Credit card and other debt statements
The court will review this documentation and compare your income and assets against the eligibility guidelines. Be sure to make copies for your records.
Complete Required Court Forms
Each court will have its own forms to assess your financial eligibility. Often, these include:
- Application – Provides basic information on identity, income, expenses, and the legal issue requiring representation.
- Affidavit – You must swear under oath that the information on the application is accurate.
- Order – The judge reviews your application and enters an order appointing an attorney if you qualify.
In addition to financial forms, other documents may be required depending on your case, like an intake questionnaire, retainer agreement, or domestic violence affidavit. Ask the court clerk for all necessary forms.
File Paperwork and Attend Hearing
To request a court-appointed lawyer, you must file the completed application and supporting documents with the court clerk. This is often done by mail or in person. The clerk will provide instructions on filing procedures and fees, which are usually minimal.
Once filed, the court will schedule a hearing where a judge reviews your eligibility. You must attend this short hearing and answer any questions. If approved, the judge enters an order appointing legal counsel to represent you.
This entire process can take several days or weeks, so file paperwork as early as possible. Having an attorney at the outset can profoundly impact your family law case.
Get Matched with an Attorney
After the judge approves your request, you will be assigned an attorney. In some jurisdictions, the judge appoints a specific lawyer to your case. Others maintain a rotating list, appointing attorneys in turn.
The court administrator or clerk generally facilitates matching lawyers and litigants. Since you do not get to select who represents you, ask questions up front to ensure a good fit, like:
- How many family law cases have you handled?
- What is your approach to my specific legal issue?
- How responsive will you be to calls and emails?
While you do not pay them directly, treat appointed counsel as you would a hired attorney. Be respectful, organized with documents, and responsive to calls and meeting requests to help your case.
Know Scope of Representation
A court-appointed lawyer is only obligated to represent you on the matter before the court – namely the family law proceeding the judge appointed them to. This may include:
- Child support
- Spousal support
- Restraining orders
For any other legal needs outside of the case they are appointed on, you require separate counsel. Be clear on the scope up front.
Pay Court-Ordered Fees
While court-appointed counsel reduces your legal costs, you will likely have to pay some fees. Based on your income, the judge may order you to contribute to attorney fees or reimburse legal costs if you are able to do so.
A monthly payment plan is often set up through the court. If your financial situation changes, you can petition to modify the repayment order. But failing to pay court-ordered sums can negatively impact your case, so take payment seriously.
Request New Counsel If Necessary
While you do not choose your court-appointed attorney, you can request a new one if the match is problematic. Valid reasons include:
- Conflicts of interest
- Failure to competently represent you
- Lack of communication
- Unethical or illegal conduct
To replace counsel, file a formal motion with the court. Explain precisely why the attorney-client relationship is defective. The judge may interview you and current counsel before ruling.
You generally only get one chance to change appointed lawyers, so take this decision seriously. Personality clashes alone are insufficient – focus on unethical or incompetent representation.
Navigating the complex legal system for a family law case without an attorney can put you at a profound disadvantage. But by demonstrating financial eligibility, completing required paperwork, attending your hearing, asking questions of appointed counsel, understanding scope limitations, and making any court-ordered payments, you can ensure your court-appointed lawyer provides competent representation. With affordable legal help, you can focus on making the best case possible under the circumstances.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can I request a specific attorney be appointed to my case?
A: Usually not. Courts generally assign attorneys in the order they appear on the appointment list, unless a judge makes a specific appointment based on the case circumstances.
Q: If I start earning more money later, can the court stop paying my legal fees?
A: Yes. If your financial situation improves during the case, the court can re-evaluate your eligibility and income level and stop fee payments or order reimbursement.
Q: What if I need help with other legal problems besides this family law case?
A: Your court-appointed attorney is only obligated to assist you on the specific matter the judge appointed them to. For any other legal issues, you will need to retain or qualify for counsel separately.
Q: Can I fire my court-appointed attorney?
A: Not easily. You must show good cause, like an ethical violation or incompetence. Personality conflicts alone are not grounds, as you do not choose appointed counsel. You can file a motion with the judge requesting different counsel.
Q: Do I have to complete community service to qualify for a court-appointed attorney?
A: No, community service is not required. You qualify based on your financial situation – income, assets, and expenses. Volunteering in the community is not relevant to getting a court-appointed lawyer.