What is a Public Defender?

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants people who are brought to trial on criminal charges several rights, including the right to defense counsel, which could mean a public defender in certain cases.

Public defenders are paid by the government, but they work on behalf of clients who can’t otherwise afford private representation. If you’re charged with a crime that could lead to incarceration, but you’re unable to afford a private attorney, then you may be eligible for public defense. This is also referred to as court-appointed representation.

The Role of Public Defenders

It’s important to note that public defenders are real attorneys. They attend school just like other lawyers, and they must pass the Bar exam for the areas in which they practice. The primary difference between a public defense attorney and one who owns a private practice is that public defenders work under the auspices of the government. In smaller communities, there may be one or two public defenders per district. Larger cities typically have more resources and more public defenders as a result. Public defense attorneys perform all of the same tasks as private attorneys, but they often do them with a much more restricted budget, fewer resources and less face time with their clients.

Pros and Cons of Appointed Representation

For people with limited financial means, public defenders are crucial in ensuring that those charged with crimes receive a fair trial and fair representation. Public defenders typically have large caseloads, which can be a benefit and a drawback. On one hand, greater exposure to the local court system means that public defenders know the judges and prosecutors, and they can work together to strike the best possible deal for their clients. On the other hand, large caseloads with limited funding mean that public defenders won’t have as much time to prepare with their clients before trial.

In some situations, public defenders only meet their clients a day or two before trial, which can make representation difficult. Public defense offices are well-known for being underfunded and overworked. A public defender may be just as competent as a private attorney, but private attorneys have certain luxuries, like time, resources and personal relationships, that can make a difference in the overall outcome.

Public Defenders vs. Private Panel

Public defense offices aren’t the only option for people who can’t afford an attorney in criminal cases. It may be possible to draw from a judge-approved panel of private attorneys instead. Like public defenders, panel attorneys serve their communities by representing people who can’t afford proper counsel. The difference is that panel attorneys are appointed by the judge, and they’re paid a set hourly rate. Attorneys who agree to sit on the panel must apply for the position. They typically hold significant experience in criminal defense, and they operate their own private practice outside of the panel.

When facing a criminal charge that could lead to prison time, U.S. citizens have a right to counsel even if they can’t afford it. Public defenders and panel attorneys provide legal services to people who need representation during criminal proceedings. While there are some drawbacks to utilizing a public defender over a private criminal defense attorney, public defenders offer many of the same benefits in addition to costing the accused party nothing out of pocket.

See also: 5 Duties of a Bailiff