Guide to Requesting Legal Help from ACLU

Because of our limited resources, the ACLU can only accept a small fraction of the cases that are presented to us. We therefore select cases primarily based on whether they will help make positive law.

Please read this information carefully to find out the kinds of cases we accept, and how to have the ACLU consider your case.

Esta infomación en español.


If after reading this, you believe your case may be the kind of case we can accept, please click here for our Legal Assistance Application Form. (If you have trouble accessing it, call our office at 619/232-2121, and press “4” to request that an intake questionnaire be sent to you.) We cannot accept intake questionnaires or information about your case via fax or e-mail.

Please do not submit additional documentation to our office. If we need more information, we will call you. We will let you know as soon as possible whether we can accept your case, although there may be some delay because of limited resources.

How do we choose cases?
The ACLU generally files cases that affect the civil liberties of large numbers of people, rather than those involving a dispute between two parties. The basic questions we ask when reviewing a potential case are:

  • Is this a significant civil liberties issue?
  • What effect will this case have on people in addition to our client?
  • Do we have the resources to take this case?

What does it cost?
In ACLU cases, the attorneys represent the clients free of charge. ACLU cases are handled by staff counsel and by volunteer attorneys, who are in private practice and volunteer their time for ACLU cases.

What are civil liberties?
The civil liberties we seek to protect include:

  • Freedom of Speech and Press. For example:
    – A student is suspended for writing a newspaper article critical of the principal;
    – A police officer is disciplined for speaking out against police brutality;
    – A group is charged for police protection when it applies for a demonstration permit.
  • Freedom of Religion. This involves both the right of individuals to religious beliefs and the separation of church and state.
  • Privacy. For example, reproductive rights.
  • Equal Protection/Discrimination. This could include, for example, a sheriff’s department that refuses to accept women deputies, or a refusal to allow homeless people to vote because they have no fixed addresses.
  • Due Process. For example, a community group is denied a permit by the police, and the town provides no appeal of the police decision.

What cases affect others?
Lawsuits can affect a large number of people in two ways. First, we sometimes challenge a policy or practice which directly impacts many people. Second, a lawsuit brought on behalf of one person can have a larger impact on others in the long run when it establishes or expands legal protections. For example, a lawsuit challenging drug testing of one employee, if successful, could set a precedent for thousands of workers in the future.

Why we prefer cases without serious factual disputes
We tend to take cases which do not involve complicated disputes of fact, but prefer to take cases where the issue is a question of law. An example of a factual dispute is an employment discrimination case where the employer claims he fired the employee because of poor job performance and has credible evidence to support that claim. The reasons we often decide not to accept cases involving factual disputes are:

  • our limited resources (it is often expensive to prove a case which involves substantial factual disputes);
  • a court might never reach the civil liberties legal issue if it resolves the facts against the client; and
  • the case is less likely to have a broad impact on others if the decision rests upon the specific facts of a case.

Types of cases the ACLU generally cannot accept
Types of cases the ACLU does not generally accept include:

  • A person was fired without a good reason or just cause;
  • A person is being denied benefits, such as worker’s compensation or unemployment benefits;
  • Criminal cases, or complaints about a person’s attorney in a criminal case. Only in limited cases, for example, when a person is being prosecuted for engaging in activity protected by the Constitution (such as participating in a political demonstration), do we consider accepting criminal cases.

Why the ACLU may turn down cases that fall without our guidelines
There are many cases and problems of unfairness and injustice which the ACLU is simply unable to handle. We receive hundreds of requests for help each month at this office alone. Therefore, we cannot accept many of the cases that fall within the guidelines discussed above. We must select those cases which we believe will have the greatest impact on protecting civil liberties.

Can the ACLU advise me about my case, even if you can’t take it?
The ACLU is unable to give you advice about your case, or provide other types of assistance (for example, reviewing your papers, or conducting legal research to assist you) if we do not accept your case. This policy allows us to direct the necessary resources to those cases that we do accept.

Important Note About Deadlines
All legal claims have time deadlines. The deadlines may be different depending on who violated your rights and depending on what rights were violated. For some kinds of violations, you may need to file a claim with a government agency before you can sue, and these agencies usually have their own time deadlines.

The ACLU cannot give you advice about the deadlines that apply to your case. To protect your rights, please consult with an attorney promptly to find out what deadlines apply in your case.

Legal Disclaimer
The information and materials on this web site are intended for informational purposes only and are not intended to be treated as legal advice. The information is general in nature, and may not apply to particular factual or legal circumstances. Neither the web site nor the use of information from the web site creates an attorney-client relationship.

Unsolicited emails and information sent to the ACLU and ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties do not create an attorney-client relationship.

Legal Intake Forms:

Legal Assistance Application Form – English

Applicación para solicitar ayuda legal -Espanol