If you've been charged with a criminal offense and lack the resources to hire legal representation, you may be entitled to a court-appointed attorney. The right to an attorney in criminal proceedings is enshrined within the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, not until the 1963 Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright was it established that criminal defendants who are unable to afford a lawyer have a right to free legal representation.
Defendants who meet certain low-income criteria are assigned either full-time public defenders or private lawyers appointed by the court. In either case, these attorneys typically have limited resources for each client.
This article covers criminal cases only; in civil matters such as family law or landlord-tenant, legal aid attorneys offer free services to low-income people.
Criteria for a Court-Appointed Attorney
The justices in Gideon unanimously held that "in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him." The Court later clarified that this ruling applies where the defendant is charged with either a felony or a misdemeanor that could result in imprisonment from a conviction. This rule also extends to juvenile delinquency proceedings.
To determine whether you qualify for a free court-appointed attorney, you may have to gather financial documents and prove to the judge that you lack the funds for a private lawyer. However, some courts may take you at your word (for example, homeless individuals lacking such documentation). Counties may determine eligibility for a public defender in a number of different ways, but your ability to afford a lawyer typically is based on your income and expenses. Some judges may ask you to get estimates from as many as three private attorneys before approving the assignment of a public defender.
Be sure to inform the judge that you'd like a free lawyer when you appear in court shortly after your arrest for your arraignment, when the criminal charges will be read aloud.
Working with Court-Appointed Lawyers
Public defenders typically have extremely large caseloads, so they may not have the same amount of time to spend on your case that a privately paid attorney would. However, it also should be noted that since public defenders work on so many cases, they typically know the prosecuting attorneys and judges quite well, and can use this to the advantage of their clients.
As with privately hired attorneys, court-appointed lawyers are legally obligated to zealously defend their clients' interests. Also, despite the fact that public defenders and other lawyers appointed by the court are paid by the same entity that pays the prosecutors and judges (the government), they work for you.
You may be represented by the same defender throughout your entire case ("vertical representation") or you may have different defenders handling different phases of your case ("horizontal representation"). While vertical representation provides continuity and familiarity, horizontal representation often involves the use of the most senior-level defenders for the more serious phases of a case.
Get Legal Help with Your Criminal Case
Hiring your own lawyer helps ensure that you get the best possible defense. If you can't afford one, be sure to request a free court-appointed attorney. If you're facing criminal charges, contact a criminal defense attorney near you to obtain an experienced and informed evaluation of your case.