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How to Obtain a Court-Appointed Defense Lawyer

If you are unable to afford a private defense attorney, you may qualify for a court-appointed lawyer that will represent you.

One of the foundations on which our system of law and justice is built on is that every criminal defendant has the right to be represented by legal counsel. This can be understood plainly by listening to the warning that the police in this country are required to give every person at the time of arrest. Known as the Miranda warnings, almost everyone in the U.S. knows this statement from watching hours of cop shows on television. "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."

It may seem pretty crazy these days how much a private criminal defense attorney can charge per hour. Rates as high as $300-$600 an hour can be the norm. If you are unable to afford hiring a private criminal defense attorney, you may be able to get a court-appointed lawyer to represent you in your defense. Generally, the lawyer will work at the government's expense. In order to get a court-appointed lawyer to represent you, you must generally:

  • Ask the court for a court-appointed lawyer, and
  • Provide details about your financial situation that show you are unable to hire a private defense attorney.

In general, the first time you can ask the court for a lawyer to represent you will be the first time you go in front of the judge after you were arrested. This is called the arraignment.

Most of the population of the country has little idea of how the criminal justice system runs. Generally, if you were arrested and were able to post bail, you will have been given a piece of paper that directs you to show up to court at a certain place, on a specified date and time. Or, if you were not able to post bail, you will be escorted to your first court appearance, often by the sheriff's department of your county. There, you will wait to be called into court by the court clerk. Once you have been called, often the judge's first question to you will be to inquire whether or not you are already represented by an attorney. If not, the judge will most likely inquire whether you want to apply for a court-appointed lawyer. If you answer yes, you will most likely be appointed a lawyer right then and there (if one is in the court) to assist you with the remainder of your arraignment. However, this lawyer is not often the lawyer that will be appointed to you, and some courts like to delay or postpone the arraignment until you have the lawyer with you that will represent you throughout your case. In addition, some courts also like to delay future court dates and lawyer appointment until your financial situation can be investigated to see if you qualify for a court-appointed lawyer.

Each state, and sometimes each county, will have rules that will determine whether or not you qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. These rules often have leeway built in to take into account the seriousness of the alleged crime or the probable length of the trial. So, even if you make a decent wage and may be able to hire a private attorney to work on a short case, a judge may decide that you qualify for a court-appointed lawyer if the charges against you are more serious or if it appears that your trial may last some time.

Lastly, if you earn income, but it is not high enough to hire a private attorney and not low enough to qualify you for free legal assistance through a court-appointed lawyer, the judge may provide you with "partial indigency." Under this rule, you will be represented by a court-appointed lawyer, but you will be ordered to reimburse the state for a portion of the costs of your representation during trial.

Are Court-Appointed Lawyers Any Good?

When answering this question, it needs to be kept in mind that, in most situations, any legal representation in a criminal hearing is better than no legal representation. However, this is not to say that a court-appointed lawyer is little better than nothing. In fact, many public defenders and court-appointed lawyers are some of the best legal minds in the world. Public defenders often have more courtroom time and experience than many private defense lawyers twice their age. Indeed, public defenders have been on the defense side of many of the most prestigious cases in our country's history.

However, the time and effort that your court-appointed lawyer can spend on your case has seen a downward turn in recent years as less government funding gets pushed towards these programs each year. With less money, this means that the public defenders can spend less time on all of their cases. Indeed, in some places it has become so bad that public defenders only meet their clients for the first time in the court's anteroom before trial starts.

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