The Right to Adequate Representation

Created by FindLaw's team of attorney writers and editors.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution not only guarantees criminal defendants the right to an attorney, but the right to "adequate representation." This is true whether the defendant is indigent and has a court-appointed lawyer, or if the defendant hired their own lawyer. It's important to understand that adequate representation doesn't mean perfect representation. However, an incompetent or negligent lawyer can so poorly represent a client that the court is justified in overturning a guilty verdict based on the attorney's incompetence.

Continue on to learn more about your right to adequate representation and how it can apply in any case against you.

Proving the Right to Adequate Representation Was Violated

If a defendant's lawyer is ineffective at trial and on direct appeal, the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial has been violated. In analyzing claims that a defendant's lawyer was ineffective, the principal goal is to determine whether the lawyer's conduct so undermined the functioning of the judicial process that the trial cannot be relied upon as having produced a just result. In order to prove this, the defendant must show:

  1. Their lawyer's job performance was deficient (i.e. the lawyer made errors so serious that they didn't function as the counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment); and
  2. The deficient performance unfairly prejudiced the defense (i.e. the errors were so serious that it completely deprived the defendant of a fair trial).

Unless a defendant proves both steps, 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 of a defendant, they're deferential to the lawyer. In other words, courts are bound by a strong presumption that any given lawyer's conduct falls within the range of reasonable professional assistance.

Common Claims of Inadequate Representation

As previously discussed, not every action or inaction is necessarily a violation of a defendant's right to adequate representation. However, there are some common claims that would usually unfairly prejudice a case. These include an attorney's failure to:

  • Investigate a case
  • Present supporting witnesses
  • Interview or cross-examine witnesses
  • Object to harmful evidence or arguments/statements
  • Seek DNA or blood testing (where available)
  • File timely appeal(s)
  • Determine if there would be a conflict of interest in representing the defendant

In one 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 some exonerating evidence. The appellate court reviewed the new DNA evidence together with discrepancies in the identification of the suspect at the time and found that the evidence could have caused the jury to conclude that the defendant had been mistakenly identified as the suspect. The court ultimately reversed the conviction, finding that the trial attorney's decision not to seek DNA testing constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.

Exercise Your Right to Adequate Counsel Today

If you're currently represented by a lawyer, but are concerned about their performance, or are trying to appeal a conviction, you can always obtain a second opinion from a different experienced lawyer. In many of these cases, it's important to act quickly to change course, if needed, so reach out to a criminal defense lawyer near you today.

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