The core of criminal jurisprudence is the constitutional right exercised by a criminal defendant to have a legal counsel represent him in court.
1. You have the right to remain silent.
2. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
3. You have the right to an attorney.
4. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed.
The problem lies entirely in affording a private attorney who can be really expensive charging rates in excess of $350-$550 hourly. If that is beyond your budget, you need not worry unduly because the judge will appoint a lawyer through the court offices in pursuance of the government’s free legal aid initiative.
Following the arrest the criminal defendant will be arraigned before the judge in court, and this is the moment to press the defendant’s case for seeking a lawyer appointed through the court. The defendant’s first task will be to convince the court that he is financially weak and definitely not in a position to hire the services of a private attorney.
The system works in such a way that the arrested criminal walks out of jail if he is granted bail by the judge on payment of a set sum of money (the bail amount). The court gives him a written paper mentioning the date or dates when the criminal defendant is expected to attend hearings in court. If, on the other hand, the defendant is not let out on bail (bail denied) he will normally be escorted from jail to court by a deputy of the county Sherriff’s office. In court he will await his turn till he is called by the court clerk.
In the arraignment the defendant will be questioned by the judge whether he has arranged for a defense counsel, and if he hasn’t done so, whether the court should appoint a lawyer on his behalf. If a lawyer is present in court he will normally be appointed then and there to act as the defendant’s counsel. Most probably the court would likely wait and might decide to postpone the arraignment till such time a suitable lawyer is appointed. Sometimes the judge might decide to have the financial situation of the criminal defendant investigated and confirmed before deciding to appoint a court lawyer to act as counsel for the defendant.
Whether it is state wise or county wise there will be rules framed for appointing court lawyers and provide free legal assistance to defendants. Looking to the seriousness of the crime the judge might decide that a prolonged trial could become expensive and move beyond the financial capacity of the criminal defendant, and decide to appoint a court lawyer, even though the defendant might be earning a decent salary.
Sometimes the salary earned by a defendant might not be considered low enough to seek the services of a court appointed lawyer but at the same time the salary might not be sufficient to engage a full time private attorney. In such instances the judge may rule the case as one of partial indigency and approve a court lawyer. In such cases the court may direct the defendant to reimburse some of the costs of representation during the pendency of the trial.
Admitting that the criminal defendant has no real choice in the matter, if the judge decides to appoint a court lawyer, it must be kept in mind that the defendant does get the benefit of having a qualified lawyer represent him in court. These are lawyers with good knowledge of court proceedings, though they may not be as high flying as private attorneys. In fact it can be stated without a shred of doubt that many of these court appointed public defenders are very sharp and keen legal minds. Additionally, they enjoy more time in the courtroom and have gained more experience in dealing cases than many of their counterparts in the private sector. Some of the most prestigious cases in the country have been handled competently by public defenders.
The downside to seeking a court appointed lawyer is that the government spend on public defense funding has shown a downward trend in the past decade. There is less money available to pay the public defender than in previous years. The direct impact of funds paucity is that the court appointed legal counsel has less time at his disposal for attending defendants’ cases. There are too many cases in the dock and too little time available to give defendants proper counseling. Sometimes matter worsen to such an extent that the legal counsel gets time to see and interact with defendants in the court anteroom barely an hour before a major hearing.
Normally, the practice in many courts is to select the public defender that happens to be assigned to the courtroom where the defendant’s case is scheduled to be heard. But in larger courts, especially those located in cities, the defendant may get the services of the public defender who happens to be assigned stage wise to each proceeding, for example the initial arraignment, subsequent bail hearing, and the preliminary hearings and motions that precede the trial.