Court Martial: Should I Hire a Civilian Attorney?

Courts-martial are convened for military-specific charges like desertion, mutiny, or insubordination and crimes such as arson or manslaughter. If your commander seeks to proceed with a court-martial against you, you can be certain it's a serious matter.

Facing a court-martial, just like a criminal trial for civilians, can be a stressful situation for any military service member.

 In some instances, the government provides you with a free military defense attorney. This is similar to how public defenders are appointed in civilian courts. So if you have already been appointed a free lawyer, you may ask: "Why should I hire a civilian attorney?"

The answer will depend on many factors, as everyone's case and situation will vary. In some cases, it may make all the difference in your defense. After all, if the government is trying to take away your freedom or your livelihood, the stakes are very high. With so much on the line, most military members want the best legal defense they can get.

Two Attorneys vs. One

First, it's worth noting that if you hire a civilian attorney your free military defense attorney can stay on the case. You don't have to choose between one or the other. The assigned military defense attorney can assist the civilian attorney.

Time Constraints

Your military defense attorney most often is perfectly competent to represent you. Perhaps you have a very straight forward case and your assigned lawyer is well versed in those types of cases. Then again, what if your case is particularly complex?

Like public defenders, some military defense lawyers can be spread thin with large caseloads and may not always have the time to fully invest in a case. A military defense attorney may have dozens (or even hundreds) of other cases. Be sure to ask how many cases your attorney is currently handling.

Years of Experience

Another important factor in your decision should be a prospective attorney's experience. What you’re looking for is many years of experience handling your exact type of case. Also, while the military defense attorney assigned to your case may have strong credentials, he or she may also be younger and not as experienced in defending your type of case. Experience can make the difference.

Civilian Attorneys Have No Chain of Command

A civilian military lawyer has no chain of command and doesn’t have to toe the line like many military defense attorneys. With that autonomy, civilian lawyers are able to more freely call out high-ranking military lawyers for misconduct without fear of retribution.

Questions to Ask Potential Civilian Attorneys

If you've made up your mind and want to hire a civilian attorney, ideally you want an experienced attorney near you that you can trust. FindLaw has a directory of qualified military attorneys and you can also call the local bar association in your state for more options.

Once you are ready to interview attorneys, write down a list of questions. Below are some helpful questions to ask an attorney to help you get started:

  • Do you offer a free consultation?
  • What percentage of your practice is devoted to cases like mine?
  • Can you tell me about the results of some recent cases similar to mine?
  • How well do you know the judges and prosecuting attorneys in this case?
  • What are your hourly rates?
  • Do you require a retainer (a down payment of money) for your services?

Remember, hiring a civilian attorney should make your life easier, not more difficult. After all, you’re hiring an advocate to look out for your rights.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Crimes involving military personnel need an attorney
  • Family law issues are handled differently for military families
  • Lawyers can help with military benefits or administrative issues

The military tries cases through the court martial process. A military law lawyer can help protect your rights during this process.

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