By William L. Baskette, Esq.
If you are charged with a criminal case (or contempt of court for failing to pay child support), you have the right to a court-appointed attorney if you cannot afford to pay for your own lawyer. You are entitled to ask for an attorney the moment the police arrest you. This right is to protect you from being pressured into giving a statement or confession without proper legal advice. You don’t have the same right in civil cases such as divorces. Even though court-appointed attorneys are presumed competent by the court, it is always best to hire your own. A retained (hired for a fee) attorney has a better chance to get to know you and the facts of your case because your relationship lasts more than a few minutes in the courtroom. Court appointed attorneys are paid a very low fee by the court and may not even meet you until the day of your court appearance.
If you have a job, you probably won’t qualify for a court-appointed attorney unless you have a lot of financial obligations that you cannot pay. If you have assets that can be sold to pay for a lawyer, you probably won’t qualify. Most defendants charged with felonies that hire lawyers to get their bail bonds reduced will not get a court-appointed lawyer. And if you do qualify, you do not have a choice as to which the court assigns to take your case. Neither are appointed lawyers free. If you are placed on probation or sentenced to jail, you will probably have to reimburse the county for the fees it has paid to your lawyer.
If you find yourself in court without an attorney, ask the court to appoint one or to give you time to find someone you can pay. In many county courts (where DWI trials are held), the judge tells you that you don’t need a lawyer, and you can just talk to the prosecutor. If you have ever needed help in your life, it is when you are standing before a judge, and that help comes from your lawyer. It is the prosecutor’s job to get you convicted and put in jail or probation; it is your lawyer’s job to give you a good defense and free you if possible.
Even if you are guilty, a good lawyer can get your punishment reduced or plead for leniency from the court. If you are not guilty, or do not want to accept the pleas bargain offered to you, then don’t let the district attorney or even your court-appointed attorney talk you into accepting the offer. You are going to be the one doing the time in jail or on probation, not the lawyers. If you are uncomfortable with your appointed lawyer’s representation, then ask for a re-set and consult an attorney on your own. If you wait until you accept the advice, it is much more difficult to get it changed later. Whether you accept jail time or probation, remember the ultimate decision is yours.
Any lawyer is better than no lawyer at all, and a court-appointed lawyer may be the best solution for those who really cannot pay for their own representation. For the most part, the appointed attorney is competent and can do a great job for you. In the long run, however, you may decide whether you would rather have someone represent you that you have hired.