The term “indigent” is used to describe a person who is too poor to afford to pay someone to help them. In the law, this would apply to someone who could not afford to hire a lawyer. If the court finds a person to be indigent, it will order legal aid to represent the person. A person can only be ruled an indigent in a criminal case, as those who cannot afford lawyers in divorce or civil cases can go pro se, which is to represent oneself. To explore this concept, consider the following indigent definition.

Definition of Indigent


  1. A person who is too poor to afford legal assistance, or other necessary services.


15th century     Latin indigent

What is Indigent?

An indigent is a person who is incredibly poor, to the point where even affording life’s basic necessities, like food and clothing, is a struggle. If an indigent gets in trouble with the law, then he may not be able to afford an attorney to represent him in court. In this case, after proving to the court with financial records just how poor he really is, the court may declare him an indigent, and appoint legal aid to represent him.

For example, indigents often do not own a home, or even rent an apartment. In addition to having court-appointed lawyers, indigents are often the recipients of services provided by such organizations as homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and free medical clinics.

Affidavit for Indigent Status

Each state may have a different process involved insofar as filling out an Affidavit for Indigent Status. For instance, the state of Florida, Statute 27.52 states that applicants may fill out the Affidavit for Indigent Status, and will then receive a written acceptance or rejection. Further, if an applicant’s application is approved, this does not necessarily mean he is entitled to “free” representation. The state will put a lien or judgment against any real property the applicant owns to recoup the costs involved with representation once all is said and done.

The application itself is not free either, but requires a fee of $50 for each application. The statute requires that this fee be paid within seven days of making the application. However, if the fee is not paid to the court clerk by that time, it will be recovered from the applicant upon the conclusion of his case. Put another way, no matter what, the clerk is recouping that money – even if it means the state has to sue the applicant for it. As with other court fees, this fee may be waived by the court if the indigent individual truly has no resources, and cannot pay it. Under the 14th Amendment, all people have the right to counsel during criminal proceedings.

Challenges Involved with Indigent Defense

For a public defender (legal aid), there are some challenges involved with indigent defense that makes the practice very stressful. For one thing, public defenders usually have an overwhelming caseload, given the amount of people in the country who need legal help but can’t afford it. Because of this, they are constantly running from place to place. They often don’t have time to sit down with a client until moments before the client is due in court. They then have to try to work the case without knowing much about it. This is not a comfort to the defendant.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) addresses challenges involved with indigent defense by advocating for all U.S. citizens to be provided with counsel who care about their cases, and who have the time and resources necessary to invest in them. When an inexperienced or ill-informed attorney goes up against a prosecutor in court who has all of the time and resources in the world, it’s like bringing a knife to a gun fight. The defendant does not have adequate representation, and may lose the case because his attorney did not have the time to properly evaluate all of the evidence presented.

Indigent Inmate

Even those who wind up in jail can be considered indigent inmates. While they don’t have to worry so much about income, they do still need funds to pay for things like supplies from the commissary. For example, indigent inmates may want to send mail, but do not have any money available to them for postage. While the criteria and benefits vary by jurisdiction, if an inmate has no funds available, he may qualify for indigent stamped envelopes, or paper and a pencil. In many jails and prisons, indigent inmates are also provided with certain hygiene products, such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo, and even toilet paper and feminine products.

Indigent Example in a Murder Case

An example of indigent-related proceedings can be found the matter of Ayestas v. Davis, which was ultimately heard before the Supreme Court in October 2017. Here, Carlos Manuel Ayestas was convicted in Texas in July 1997, and sentenced to the death penalty for murdering Santiaga Paneque. He then began a long appeals process, beginning with the state court.

Ayestas’ initial appeal asked for habeas corpus relief, his argument being that his trial attorney did not call family members to testify who could have proven his innocence. The state court disagreed and denied the appeal. From there, Ayestas appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, though this appeal too was denied.

In 2009, Ayestas thought up a new defense and retained a new attorney. He filed another habeas petition, this time at the federal level. His new defense was that trial counsel had not conducted a thorough enough investigation into his case. If, according to Ayestas, this had been done, then “available and abundant” evidence would have been discovered that would have set him free.

The district court denied his appeal yet again, the reason being that Ayestas had not raised this argument in his initial appeal. Raising a new argument in this manner is not permissible, and creates what is known as a “procedural defect.” Ayestas refused to give up, and took this new defense to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He lost there too, but still he wouldn’t give up.

Ayestas asked the Court for a “rehearing,” demanding “reasonably necessary” investigative services to help him flesh out this new defense properly. Indigent defendants who are facing the death penalty are allowed to make this “reasonably necessary” argument. This is so the defendant can be given the chance to use every resource possible to prove his case, and perhaps convince the jury to reduce his sentence to a lesser one not involving the death penalty.

However, the Court unanimously rejected Ayestas’ plea based on the idea that a defendant must be able to show that a “substantial need” for these funds exists – something Ayestas could not do.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Commissary – In prison, a store that sells food and supplies to the inmates.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Habeas Corpus – A petition used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine if his imprisonment is unlawful.
  • Judgment – A formal decision made by a court in a lawsuit.
  • Legal Aid – Free legal advice or representation for those clients who would not otherwise be able to afford it.
  • Lien – An encumbrance placed on a person’s property to secure a debt the property owner owes to another person or entity.
  • Petition – The act of dividing something into parts.
  • Public Defender – An attorney appointed by the court to represent a defendant who cannot afford to hire an attorney. In large jurisdictions, the office of the Public Defender employs multiple defense attorneys who have a large caseload. In smaller jurisdictions, attorneys for public defense may be appointed from a pool of local private attorneys.