The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees numerous rights to criminal defendants. Among these, it promises the right to an attorney and the right to adequate representation. These rights whether the defendant is indigent and received a public defender or they hired their own attorney.
The right to adequate representation doesn't mean perfect representation, but a lawyer's incompetence may justify a court overturning a guilty verdict.
This article summarizes the right to adequate representation. Specifically, it covers the following:
- How courts analyze the right
- What happens if an attorney violates the right
- Common claims of the inadequate assistance of counsel
For more information about the right to counsel, consider browsing FindLaw's Criminal Rights section.
Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel and Adequate Representation
The Sixth Amendment right to counsel is one of several rights that guarantees criminal defendants a fair trial in criminal law. An attorney's legal knowledge gives defendants a chance to prevail in a criminal trial. The Sixth Amendment also provides for the appointment of counsel for indigent defendants. The court will appoint a public defender to such defendants.
The right to counsel applies at all critical stages of a criminal proceeding. Typically, this means from the arraignment hearing, when the court notifies a defendant of their criminal charges, through the first appeal, if any, of the verdict.
Criminal defense attorneys owe their clients a duty of loyalty. They must also avoid any conflicts of interest. In general, the attorney must assist the client throughout the case. This includes appearing on their behalf at trial and advising them of various courses of action. The attorney must appear competent during the trial to promote fairness in the criminal justice system.
The right to counsel does not in and of itself guarantee a fair trial. The attorney's performance must be adequate, and they must put in the appropriate time and effort to represent their client. This is known as the effective assistance of counsel.
The right to the effective assistance of counsel is important for several reasons. First, it provides a legal professional to advocate for the defendant with zeal. Second, it legitimizes the adversarial court system by producing more just case results.
The Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
What if a defense attorney is ineffective during a criminal prosecution? They violate the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. In analyzing claims of ineffective counsel, the argument centers on whether the lawyer's conduct so undermined the case that the trial cannot be relied upon as having produced a just result.
In Strickland v. Washington (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified when a criminal defense attorney's ineffective representation violates the Sixth Amendment. There, the Supreme Court established a test for determining such violations. Courts must judge these claims based on the “reasonably effective assistance" test. They must also consider all the surrounding circumstances.
This means, in a criminal case, the defendant challenging their attorney's assistance must show the following:
- Their lawyer's legal representation was so deficient that it fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. In other words, the lawyer made errors so severe that they didn't function as the counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.
- The deficient performance unfairly prejudiced the defense such that, but for the ineffective assistance of counsel, there is a reasonable probability the result of the case would have been different. That means the errors were so severe that they deprived the defendant of a fair trial.
The defendant must prove both elements. If they cannot, the conviction or sentence cannot be said to result from a breakdown in the judicial process such that the result is unreliable.
When courts review a lawyer's advocacy, they're deferential to the lawyer. In other words, courts are bound by a strong presumption that a lawyer's conduct falls within the range of reasonable professional assistance.
As the court noted in Strickland, the guide to whether assistance was effective or ineffective focuses on whether a fair trial occurred. Courts view the attorney's challenged conduct through the attorney's point of view when they made various decisions. So long as the attorney's decisions were reasonable at the time, courts will find their assistance was effective.
Common Claims of Inadequate Representation
Not every action or inaction is a violation of a defendant's right to adequate representation. However, some common claims would prejudice a case in an unfair manner. These include an attorney's failure to:
- Investigate a case
- Present supporting witnesses
- Interview or cross-examine witnesses
- Object to harmful evidence or statements
- Seek DNA or blood testing (where available)
- File timely appeal(s)
- Determine if there is a conflict of interest in representing the defendant
In a case involving burglary and sexual assault, the defendant's attorney decided not to perform a DNA test at trial due, in part, to its cost. On appeal, DNA tests were performed and provided exonerating evidence. The court reversed the conviction. It found that the trial attorney's decision not to seek DNA testing constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.
Exercise Your Right to Adequate Counsel Today
Do you have concerns about your attorney's representation? You can always get a second opinion from a different lawyer. Acting quickly to change course if needed may be essential to your case. Consider contacting a criminal defense lawyer near you today.