Options for free or low-cost legal help include legal aid, pro bono services, legal clinics, and advocates. As well, learn the best sources of legal information for resolving legal problems.
Understand your options
If you have a low income, and are facing some types of criminal, family, or immigration problems, you may be able to get a lawyer for free from legal aid. Contact the Legal Services Society by visiting legalaid.bc.ca or calling 604-408-2172 in Greater Vancouver or toll-free 1-866-577-2525 elsewhere in BC. Their website lists legal aid service locations across the province.
If you don’t qualify for representation by a legal aid lawyer, you may still be eligible for other legal aid services. These include duty counsel and lawyers who provide telephone advice.
Most courthouses have lawyers called duty counsel. They give free legal advice to people of limited means who have a case in the courthouse on that day. If you are in court on a criminal or family matter, they can give you brief advice. They may be able to speak for you in court on simple matters. For duty counsel hours in the courthouse in your community, visit legalaid.bc.ca or contact your local legal aid office.
If you have a low income and are experiencing a family law issue, you may be eligible for free legal advice over the telephone from a family lawyer. Family LawLINE lawyers give brief “next step” advice about family law issues. Call Legal Services Society at 604-408-2172 in Greater Vancouver or toll-free 1-866-577-2525 elsewhere in BC.
If you are arrested or detained and in police custody, you can call the Brydges Line to speak with a lawyer. This is a free 24-hour emergency number for legal advice. Call toll-free 1-866-458-5500.
If you are in police custody awaiting a bail hearing, you can get legal advice over the phone during the evenings and on weekends and holidays. You can reach legal aid’s advice counsel lawyers by calling toll-free 1-888-595-5677.
Justice Access Centres in Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo provide help with family issues and everyday problems such as work, housing or debt problems. The Justice Access Centres offer free mediation services and limited legal advice services. Many of these services are available to everyone. Some services (such as family advice lawyers) are available to those on a low income. For more information, call these numbers: in Vancouver, 604-660-2084; in Victoria, 250-356-7012; and in Nanaimo, 250-741-5447. Or visit ag.gov.bc.ca/justice-access-centre.
“Pro bono” means “for the public good”. With pro bono legal services, lawyers volunteer to provide free legal advice and assistance to those who can’t afford a lawyer or get legal aid. Through Access Pro Bono, volunteer lawyers provide summary legal advice at a network of legal clinics around British Columbia. Other Access Pro Bono programs provide representation services in limited situations. Call 604-878-7400 in Greater Vancouver or toll-free 1-877-762-6664 from elsewhere in the province, or visit their website at accessprobono.ca.
Other organizations also offer pro bono help. For example, the BC Collaborative Roster Society has a Pro Bono Collaborative Divorce Project for parties needing assistance with their separation and who would like to stay out of court. See their website at bccollaborativerostersociety.com for details.
Dozens of agencies provide legal assistance in specific areas to people who are disadvantaged or of limited means.
Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) provides legal advice and assistance to people who are disadvantaged or whose human rights need protection. Visit clasbc.net or call 604-685-3425 in Vancouver or toll-free 1-888-685-6222.
Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of BC provides culturally appropriate services to Indigenous people in communities across BC. Courtworkers help Indigenous people charged with a crime understand their rights and options, and navigate the court system. For more information, visit nccabc.ca or call toll-free 1-877-811-1190.
The Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre (TRAC) offers a telephone infoline to help tenants experiencing legal problems. They also provide free representation to tenants at dispute resolution hearings in limited situations. Call 604-255-0546 in Vancouver or toll-free 1-800-665-1185 or visit tenants.bc.ca.
MOSAIC provides legal advice and representation to low-income immigrants and refugees. They help newcomers navigate the Canadian legal system. Call 604-254-9626 in Vancouver or visit mosaicbc.org.
In communities across the province, advocates provide free support and advocacy to low-income and marginalized people experiencing legal problems. Advocates help with legal problems such as tenancy or work problems, family violence, accessing government benefits, and immigration issues. Advocates work mostly out of community agencies, such as community service centres, churches or women’s centres. Advocates are trained to help people assert their rights, including with the paperwork involved. PovNet has a Find an Advocate Map at povnet.org. Clicklaw’s HelpMap at clicklaw.bc.ca/helpmap lists dozens of advocates in BC.
At student legal clinics in the Lower Mainland and Victoria, law students can help those who would otherwise be unable to afford legal assistance. The students help with legal problems such as tenancy or work problems, accessing government benefits, (less serious) criminal charges, and small claims cases. In the Lower Mainland, call 604-822-5791 or visit lslap.bc.ca. In the Victoria area, call 250-385-1221 or visit uvic.ca/law/about/centre.
Lawyers across BC participate in the Lawyer Referral Service, which can connect you with a lawyer for a free half-hour consultation. The service is operated by Access Pro Bono. Call 604-687-3221 in the Lower Mainland or 1-800-663-1919 toll-free elsewhere in BC, or visit accessprobono.ca. After you explain your problem, the service will give you the name of a lawyer who does that type of law in your area of the province. You contact the lawyer to make an appointment. The lawyer will meet with you for a free consultation for up to 30 minutes. The lawyer can provide some initial advice on your options. Then, if you and the lawyer agree, you can hire that lawyer at their regular rates.
More generally, if you want to talk to a lawyer, but are afraid of what it might cost, call the lawyer. Ask what they charge for an initial consultation. Some lawyers don’t charge for the first interview and others charge very little.
Instead of hiring a lawyer to handle your entire legal matter, you can hire a lawyer to handle specific parts. Doing so “unbundles” these tasks from the parts you can do yourself. With unbundled legal services, you get assistance where you need it most, at a cost you can manage. You pay only for the tasks the lawyer works on.
For example, if you’re going to court, you can hire a lawyer to help you prepare documents or to coach you on how to present your case.
Unbundling works well for many people and many types of legal matters — but not for all. To learn about unbundled legal services and whether it might be a good fit for your situation, see unbundlinglaw.ca.
There is a wealth of free legal information available online. Here are some of the best sources for British Columbians.
Clicklaw is a website operated by Courthouse Libraries BC to provide access to legal information for the layperson. It covers dozens of topics, and features problem-solving information. Visit clicklaw.bc.ca.
Courthouse Libraries BC also provides Clicklaw Wikibooks, plain language legal publications that are born-wiki and can also be printed. See wiki.clicklaw.bc.ca.
People’s Law School is a non-profit society dedicated to making the law accessible to everyone. Their website at peopleslawschool.ca provides free education and information to help people deal with the legal problems of daily life. Featured topics include consumer and debt problems, problems at work, and wills and estates.
Legal Services Society, the legal aid provider in BC, provides free legal information on family law, criminal law, immigration, and Aboriginal legal issues. Their main website legalaid.bc.ca includes many publications in languages other than English. Their Family Law in BC website at familylaw.lss.bc.ca features self-help information for people in family disputes. Information for Aboriginal people is available on their Aboriginal Legal Aid in BC website at aboriginal.legalaid.bc.ca.
Justice Education Society improves the legal capability of people through education programs and resources to strengthen legal knowledge, skills and confidence. Visit justiceeducation.ca.
In communities across BC, public libraries provide access to books and resources about the law aimed at non-lawyers. Librarians can help in finding what you need. Visit newtobc.ca/bc-libraries for a map of public libraries across the province.
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
Reviewed in August 2019
Time to read: 7 minutes