If you’re facing criminal charges and are unable to afford a private defense attorney, you may qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. After all, one of the foundations of our legal system is that every criminal defendant has the right to legal representation. This is reflected in the Miranda warning that police must read aloud when arresting someone:
You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed.
Requesting a Court-Appointed Lawyer
Some private criminal defense attorneys charge hundreds of dollars per hour, while others are more affordable. If you’re unable to pay for your own attorney, you may be eligible for a lawyer who will work at the government’s expense.
The opportunity to formally request one usually comes the first time you appear in front of a judge after your arrest, known as your arraignment. When the judge calls your case, the first question will be whether you’re represented by an attorney and, if not, whether you would like one appointed to your case. If you answer that you’d like one, the judge may ask you some financial questions or require you to complete an income-and-asset questionnaire, in order to verify that you truly don’t have the funds to hire your own attorney. It’s important to provide honest answers because false information can lead to a prosecution for perjury.
Local Rules and Partial Indigency
Each state, and sometimes each county, has its own rules for determining how to qualify for court-appointed counsel. The rules often take into account the seriousness of the alleged crime. So, even if you earn a decent wage and could hire a private attorney for a short misdemeanor case, a judge may determine that you’re eligible for a court-appointed lawyer if the charges against you are serious ones that are likely to require a significant number of billable hours by your attorney.
If your income is not quite high enough to bear the expense of a private attorney and not quite low enough to qualify for a free government-paid lawyer, the judge may make a determination of “partial indigency.” This means that you’re eligible for a court-appointed lawyer but must reimburse the government for a portion of your costs of representation.
Are Court-Appointed Lawyers Any Good?
Court-appointed lawyers are often highly skilled and deeply committed to their clients. In fact, many public defenders have more courtroom experience than private defense lawyers twice their age, plus longstanding working relationships with prosecutors and judges.
On the downside, public defenders tend to have enormous caseloads, which leaves them overstretched and lacking extra time to devote to any particular client. Another category of court-appointed lawyers consists of private attorneys who accept individual case assignments from the court. They are sometimes paid flat fees, so it can hurt their bottom line if they linger too long on a task. In contrast, privately hired criminal defense lawyers generally have the luxury to devote all the time necessary to a client’s situation. They can focus harder on identifying flaws in the prosecution’s case and developing defenses.