Court-appointed lawyers are lawyers who have been assigned to assist a person during criminal law proceedings, when that person cannot afford an attorney for themselves. According to the United States Constitution, a criminal defendant must be provided with an attorney if they cannot afford to hire their own private attorney.
In short, court-appointed attorneys essentially work for the defendant for free. These attorneys are appointed by the state and perform various tasks, including arguing the defense before the court, researching applicable state and federal laws, and providing relevant legal advice to the defendant. Typically, a court appointed attorney is reserved for cases in which the defendant has been involved in a jailable offense.
The obvious advantage to retaining a court-appointed attorney, or public defender, is that they are generally free of charge for the defendant, with some exceptions. Another advantage is that a court-appointed attorney possibly appears in front of the same people, in the same court, on a daily basis. Thus, they may know valuable things about judges, prosecutors, and local law enforcement. Public defenders provide representation that is at least as competent as the representation provided by a private attorney.
Most public defenders also have a strong sense of justice and are committed to getting the best possible results, and have resources that may not be available to private attorneys. One concern is that their heavy workload could cut into their ability to be effective. Therefore, a court-appointed attorney may not match the needs, preferences, and personal goals of the defendant.
It is very important 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, they will be assigned one automatically. The first opportunity to make a request will generally occur at the arraignment, when the charges are brought against the defendant. You may also make your request during the bail hearing.
The judge will first ask you if you are represented by an attorney. Upon answering that no, you are not represented, the judge will then ask if you would like to apply for for a court-appointed attorney. Some courts will appoint the attorney right away and finish your arraignment. Others will delay your case and appoint the attorney after reviewing and approving your economic circumstances.
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 documents, and reviewing these documents could take a good amount of time. Thus, you may not receive a quick answer about your eligibility. Each state or county has their own rules regarding qualifying for a court-appointed attorney.
Another qualifying factor is the severity of the crime in question. For example, a wage earner might be able to afford private representation for a minor crime, but not a more serious crime that requires a lengthy and complicated trial.
If you do not qualify for a court-appointed attorney, and cannot afford private representation, the court will generally still provide you with representation. At the conclusion of the case, 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. This 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.
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 advice. After the consultation, you may decide it is worth it to find a way to afford retaining a private attorney. Alternatively, you may feel affirmed in your decision to continue working with the court-appointed lawyer.
If you are not happy with your court-appointed attorney, it is probably not possible to be assigned a new one. Such a request is rarely granted by a judge because 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.
As previously mentioned, representation provided by a public defender is generally on par with that of a private attorney. Simply because they work for “free” does not necessarily mean that they are less skilled or competent. Often, they are just as good, or even better. If you are having reservations 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.
If you have been accused of a crime, it is in your best interest to speak with a qualified and knowledgeable criminal attorney immediately. They will help you understand your rights, your state’s specific and unique laws, as well as your defenses.