Need legal advice but afraid you can't afford the help of a lawyer? Don't throw in the towel! There are numerous free and low-cost legal resources out there. Here are some:
A good place to start is www.FloridaLawHelp.org, where you'll find legal information covering child support, health, education, immigration, disabilities, consumer law, housing, employment, domestic violence, divorce and more.
Each of these subject areas has links to Florida specific information. Sources include The Florida Bar, county clerk's offices, legal aid organizations and, where appropriate, the federal government.
LegalLine: This free once-a-month service allows callers to ask an attorney a legal question. It's open from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month. Callers, who may choose to remain anonymous, should call 866-596-0399, toll-free.
LegalLine, is operated by the Dade County Bar Association and staffed by volunteer lawyers who can answer a broad range of basic legal questions in English or Spanish. Legal specialties include family, probate, criminal, real estate, landlord-tenant and business and immigration law. When appropriate, they will also refer callers to service organizations.
Here's a sample of commonly asked questions:
I was arrested a few years ago and was wondering how I could expunge my arrest record.
I'm being sued for child support, but I can't afford to pay. What are my options?
I'm being assessed unfairly by my condo/homeowners' association. What can I do about this?
My father died and left money in his bank account. How can I access the account?
Learn more at www.dadecountybar.org/public_service.htm
GETTING A LAWYER
With few exceptions, anyone practicing law in Florida must be a member of the Florida Bar. Check an attorney's status at www.flabar.org. The website provides information, in English and Spanish, covering a range of consumer topics. You can also find out if an attorney has been subject to disciplinary action in the last 10 years.
National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA): Frequently, consumers are reluctant to consult a lawyer over matters of credit, debt, pay day loans, bankruptcy, consumer fraud, auto fraud, auto lemon law and the like, because they fear the additional expense; but consulting an attorney who specializes in consumer issues will probably cost you nothing.
Remember that like medicine, law covers a huge number of topics, and just as you would choose a medical specialist to treat cancer, you should choose an attorney who specializes in the issue you're dealing with.
Laws protecting consumers from unscrupulous businesses usually allow the attorney to claim all his or her fees from that business. NACA members usually don't charge for the first visit, so even if you don't have a case, it won't cost you anything to find out where you stand and what your options are.
To find a member, visit www.naca.net and click on Find An Attorney. The search is finicky, so we suggest you only select Florida, choose an Area [of practice] and then select Sort By: State. Look for someone with "experience'' or "advanced knowledge'' in the area of practice.
Regrettably, consumer law is not a widely practiced field, which is a shame because competent consumer attorneys can make a comfortable living standing up for the little guy.
Legal Services of Greater Miami: This nonprofit provides free legal assistance to low-income and older residents of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. To be eligible, you must make less than 125 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines (unless you're over 60) and have one of the types of cases it handles -- mostly housing, health, employment and family support issues. For more details, call 305-576-0080 or go to www.lsgmi.org.
The Legal Aid Society of the Dade County Bar Association offers free legal services mainly in the area of family law to low-income Miami-Dade residents. For more information, call 305-371-2220.
Legal Aid Service of Broward County and Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida: serve low-income Broward residents. The two organizations work together to handle elderly, health, landlord/tenant, public benefits, consumer and family law issues, among others. Both organizations can be reached by calling 954-765-8950.
The Florida Bar: If you don't qualify for legal aid, the Florida Bar can provide referrals to lawyers who will conduct consultations for a $25 fee. The Lawyer Referral Service can be reached at 800-342-8011. You can also search its database at www.floridabar.org; click on Find a Lawyer, then Lawyer Referral Service on the right.
Small Claims Court Clinic: Every month, Miami-Dade County Consumer Services Department holds a seminar on the Small Claims Court process. Anyone with a claim of $5,000 or less can take the other party to a Small Claims Court without the need to hire an attorney. Nevertheless, the process can be intimidating and the clinics are designed to help you understand what's involved.
Clinics are held in different locations around the county and are free and open to everyone. Periodically, they are offered in Spanish. Some clinics deal with collecting on a judgment.
Occasionally, Broward County offers similar clinics. Action Line will let readers know as we learn of them.
WHEN THE LAWYER'S THE PROBLEM...
If you have a dispute with a lawyer, contact the Attorney Consumer Assistance Program. It is a service of The Florida Bar and is the place to turn if you believe your lawyer has acted unethically. It will attempt to resolve the problem and, if necessary, help you file a formal complaint. It does not get involved in billing disputes, which can be referred to The Bar's fee arbitration program. Learn more about both programs at www.flabar.org.