Criminal defendants in criminal cases always have the right to an attorney, and if they cannot secure their own, the court will provide one. Such an attorney is called a court-appointed attorney, or a public defense lawyer. Court-appointed or public defense attorneys are appointed by the state in order to represent the criminal defendant during criminal law proceedings.

Court-appointed attorneys perform various tasks, including but not limited to:

  • Arguing the defense case before the court using the legal defense theories they have formulated;
  • Analyzing the specific facts of each case;
  • Researching appropriate laws, both federal and state, that would apply to the case; and
  • Providing the defendant with legal advice.

According to the United States Constitution, criminal defendants must be provided with an attorney if they cannot afford to hire their own. This is because it is only fair to the defendant for them to have a professional advocate defending them and their rights. Generally speaking, court appointed lawyers are free, but reserved for cases in which the defendant has been involved in some jailable offense.

How Do I Qualify for a Court Appointed Attorney?

It is imperative to note that, although a court-appointed attorney is a constitutional right, you must both qualify for and request one from the court. If the defendant fails to make a specific request in regards to who they wish to represent their case, they will be assigned an attorney automatically. The first opportunity in which to request a court-appointed attorney will generally occur at the arraignment, when the charges are brought against the defendant. A defendant may also make their request during the bail hearing.

Some courts will appoint the attorney right away and finish your arraignment. Others will delay your case and appoint the attorney once they have reviewed and approved of your economic circumstances. In order to request a court appointed attorney, you will usually be required to provide proof that you cannot afford to hire your own attorney. This could be in the form of financial or legal documents, and reviewing them could take a good amount of time. As such, you may not quickly receive an answer regarding your eligibility.

Another factor to consider is the severity of the crime in question. An example of this would be a wage earner who is able to afford private representation for a minor crime. However, the same defendant would not be able to afford private representation for a more serious crime requiring a lengthy and complicated trial.

What Is Partial Indigency?

Each state has their own rules regarding qualifying for a court-appointed attorney. However, if you do not qualify for a court-appointed attorney and cannot afford your own representation, the court will generally still provide you with representation. Once the case has concluded, the judge will require you to reimburse the state for whatever portion of the attorney’s fees that you are able to afford.

This can also be referred to as partial indigency, and occurs when a person’s income is not substantial enough to hire a private attorney, but is also not yet low enough to meet eligibility requirements for a court-appointed attorney.

Do I Always Need to Keep My Court Appointed Attorney?

If you are not happy with your court-appointed attorney, it is not likely possible to be assigned a new one. Such a request is rarely granted by a judge due to the fact that the defendant must prove that the representation provided by the court-appointed attorney is truly incompetent. Incompatibility is not generally a qualifying factor when requesting a new public defender.

However, you are absolutely allowed to get a second opinion regarding the advice provided by your court-appointed attorney. If you feel that they are not adequately and accurately representing you and your case, you may wish to purchase a short consultation with a private attorney.

This will allow you to hear their thoughts on the matter and compare the advice provided by both attorneys. After the consultation, you may decide it is worth it to find and retain a private attorney. Alternatively, you may feel affirmed in your decision to continue working with the court-appointed lawyer.

Court-appointed attorneys are good. The legal representation provided by a public defender is generally on par with that of a private attorney. Simply because they work for “free” does not mean that they are less skilled or competent. Often, they are just as good, or even better, as private attorneys. If you are skeptical about the qualifications of your court-appointed attorney, you should ask them about their qualifications, including how many similar cases they have handled and what the outcome of those cases were. Open communication is key with any attorney, whether court appointed or hired on your own.

What Other Rights Do Criminal Defendants Have?

Criminal defendants have several rights, including the right to an attorney. Some of the most common rights available to criminal defendants include:

  • The Fourth Amendment: the Fourth Amendment provides protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and states that the government must have probable cause for searches and seizures. Also, illegally obtained evidence generally may not be used against a criminal defendant in court;
  • The Fifth Amendment: the Fifth Amendment protects against self-incrimination (the right to remain silent) and double jeopardy;
  • The Sixth Amendment: the Sixth Amendment provides criminal defendants with the right to legal representation, the right to a speedy trial, and the right to confront witnesses; and
  • The Eighth Amendment: the Eighth Amendment provides criminal defendants with the right to a reasonable bail and the right against cruel and unusual punishment.

Should I Hire My Own Attorney for Criminal Matters?

If you are the defendant in a criminal case, and you can afford to, you should speak with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal lawyer. A criminal defense attorney will understand the laws and legal defense theories that could apply to your case, and will represent you and protect your constitutional rights in court.

Hiring your own attorney could be beneficial in terms of the amount of undivided attention given to your case. Additionally, a court-appointed attorney may not match your specific needs, preferences, and/or personal goals.