You may be entitled to a court-appointed attorney if you are charged with a crime and lack the resources to hire legal representation. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides the right to an attorney in a criminal proceeding. However, it wasn't until 1963 that the U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright established criminal defendants' right to free legal representation if they cannot afford a lawyer.
Defendants who meet specific low-income criteria are assigned full-time public defenders or private lawyers appointed by the court. In either case, these attorneys typically have limited resources. They also have a large number of cases assigned to them.
This article only covers criminal cases. Legal aid attorneys offer free services to low-income people in civil matters such as family law or landlord-tenant law.
Criteria for a Court-Appointed Attorney
Gideon applies when the defendant is charged with a felony or a misdemeanor for which a conviction could result in imprisonment. This rule also extends to juvenile delinquency proceedings.
Your ability to afford a lawyer is typically based on your income and expenses. A defendant suffering from extreme poverty is known as an indigent defendant. If you are indigent, your court-appointed attorney is free.
The judge may require that you provide financial documents to prove you are indigent. The judge will determine whether you qualify for a free criminal defense lawyer or whether you should hire your own lawyer from available private attorneys. Counties may determine eligibility for a public defender in different ways.
To request a court-appointed attorney, inform the judge at your arraignment. An arraignment is a court appearance where the judge reads your criminal charges aloud. During your arraignment, the judge will ask if you have hired an attorney. If you request a court-appointed attorney, the judge will ask questions about your finances. Alternatively, they may have you complete a questionnaire.
If your income is high enough that you do not qualify for free court-appointed counsel but low enough that you cannot hire a private attorney, the judge may determine you are partially indigent. Partial indigency means a judge will assign you a court-appointed lawyer from the public defender's office. However, you may be required to partially reimburse the government after the case concludes if you are found guilty.
Differences Between Public and Private Defense Attorneys
Public defenders typically have extremely large caseloads. They may not have the same amount of time to spend on your case as a privately paid attorney. However, public defenders often have more courtroom experience than private attorneys.
Additionally, they often know the prosecuting attorneys and judges quite well, and they can use this to their client's advantage. An experienced public defender has most likely handled many indigent defense cases.
Private attorneys will charge attorney fees in exchange for representing you. One advantage of hiring your own attorney is that they are likely not as busy as a public defender. Therefore, a private attorney may have more time to devote to your case.
Lawyers are legally obligated to defend you zealously, whether the court assigns them or not. Additionally, the attorney-client privilege applies to either relationship.
Get Legal Help With Your Criminal Case
Hiring a lawyer helps ensure you get the best possible defense in your criminal law case. If you cannot afford one, you may request a free court-appointed attorney. An attorney can provide you with the following:
- Legal advice and legal information about criminal cases
- Information regarding the appointment of counsel
- Lawyer referral services
Contact a criminal defense attorney near you if you require legal services or face criminal charges.