May 13, 2014
Thanks to J for asking, "What if a defendant in a civil case cannot afford a lawyer?" In most cases, the answer is he will not have an attorney unless he can find a volunteer attorney willing to assist him.
This is an important question in the United States. You might hear the issue referred to as "Civil Gideon". The United States Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 US 355 (1963) held that poor defendants in criminal cases who face the possibility of prison have a right to counsel. But there is no constitutional right to counsel in a civil case.
Most states (maybe all? I'm not sure) provide a right to counsel at least in some types of civil cases, such as child custody cases, where elderly persons face eviction, but the types of cases vary from state to state.
If the state will not appoint an attorney, a defendant will have to look for a charitable organization or an attorney willing to volunteer.
Plaintiffs in a civil case who cannot afford an attorney might be able to find an attorney willing to work on a contingency fee. See below or here for a short video on contingency fees.