How to Get a Court Appointed Attorney

Three Parts:Reviewing Your CaseRequesting A Court-Appointed AttorneyAppealing a Denial

In the United States, if you have been charged with a crime and cannot afford to hire a private defense attorney, a court-appointed attorney will be provided to you. This right is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[1] Additionally, you should have been reminded of this right as part of the Miranda warning your received at the time of your arrest.[2] Typically, the process of getting a court-appointed defense attorney is as simple as asking for one, though you may have to prove that you cannot afford to hire an attorney yourself.[3]

Part 1
Reviewing Your Case

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    Review the basics of your case. Whether you are entitled to an attorney depends on the type of case in which you are involved. In most criminal cases, you are entitled to have an attorney represent you, unless the offense is so minimal that you are not facing a jail sentence if convicted.[4]
    • There are other types of cases where you are entitled to an attorney, such as a case initiated by Child Protective Services to terminate your parental rights.[5]
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    Review your finances. To qualify for a court-appointed attorney, you must not be able to afford your own private defense attorney. When you request a court-appointed attorney, you can expect that the judge will ask about your finances, and may even ask for evidence of financial hardship. You will need to explain, and possibly demonstrate, that having to pay for an attorney would be a hardship on you or your family.[6] If you are found not guilty, you will not have to pay for your appointed attorney, unless the judge determines that incorrectly reported your financial situation. If you are found guilty, you will be required to pay for the public defender, though those fees will still be less than those of a private defense attorney.[7]
    • If asked to provide evidence of your financial situation, provide copies of your lease or mortgage, recent paystubs, and credit card and bank statements.
    • It does not matter if your relatives can afford to hire an attorney for you. You do not have a legal obligation to ask your family to help you pay for an attorney.[8]
    • If your case is not particularly complex, and is not likely to require many hours of an attorney’s time, a judge may deny your request for a court-appointed attorney and instruct you to hire a private defense attorney.[9]
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    Appreciate the importance of having a lawyer. Some defendants choose to forego a lawyer and represent themselves instead. This is usually not a good idea. Criminal law is complex and detailed, and your will be facing an experienced and well-trained prosecutor.[10] You want a defense attorney on your side for their writing, negotiating, and trial experience. What’s more, your defense attorney will monitor the prosecutor’s work and address any unethical conduct to the judge.
    • Even if you are guilty, you should have an attorney represent you in negotiating for a more favorable sentence or plea deal.[11]

Part 2
Requesting A Court-Appointed Attorney

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    Attend the arraignment. Your first appearance in court is usually your arraignment or bail hearing. It is also your opportunity to ask for a court-appointed attorney.[12] If you are in custody, jail officials will escort you to the hearing. If you have already been released on bail, you are responsible for attending the hearing on time.
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    Request a court-appointed attorney. The judge will ask you whether you are represented by an attorney. When you answer “no,” the judge will ask whether you would like the court to appoint an attorney to represent you. Say yes.
    • At this point, the judge may appoint a lawyer immediately. That lawyer, who will already be present in the courtroom, will represent you and assist you through the rest of the hearing.[13]
    • In some cases, the judge will delay the rest of your hearing in order to review your financial circumstances before appointing an attorney to represent you.[14] Answer any questions the judge has, and follow any instructions he or she gives you.
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    Understand the difference between a public defender and a panel attorney. Depending upon your county and the circumstances of your case, you may receive a panel attorney instead of a public defender. The difference is that public defenders work for the public defender’s office, which is a government agency; while panel attorneys are private defense attorneys who accept court-appointed defense work in addition to their private practice cases.[15]
    • Some counties do not have a public defender’s office and rely entirely upon panel attorneys. There are two other common situations where you might receive a panel attorney. The first is when you have a co-defendant, he or she is represented by a public defender, and it would be a conflict of interest for the public defender’s office to represent you both. The second situation is where the victim of the crime was previously represented by the public defender in another case.[16]
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    Communicate with your attorney. Make sure to write down the name and phone number of your appointed attorney. If you are in jail, your attorney will meet with you. If you have been released on bail, be sure to return your attorney’s calls promptly. Your attorney will ask you for contact information for any witnesses, and may ask you to create a timeline of events or draw a picture of the crime scene.[17]
    • All of your communications with your appointed attorney are protected by attorney-client privilege, with some very narrow exceptions.[18] If you have any questions about confidentiality, ask your attorney to explain the confidentiality rules that govern your relationship.
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    Report any changes in your financial status. Your eligibility for free or reduced-cost legal assistance is contingent upon your financial status. If your financial situation changes, you need to let the court know.[19] Ask your attorney how you can report your changed circumstances to the court. If your financial situation improves and you fail to disclose it to the court, you may be penalized.
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    Change attorneys if necessary. In some rare circumstances, an appointed attorney will do a poor job that warrants you asking for a new attorney. Such requests are rarely granted, but if you can demonstrate that communication between you and your attorney has broken down, you may be able to get a substitution.[20]
    • Ask your attorney to voluntarily withdraw first. Your attorney may be willing to honor your request for a new attorney. If this is the case, the attorney will ask the judge for a substitution, and the judge may grant it.[21]
    • File a Motion for Substitution of Attorney if your attorney will not consent. Ask the court clerk for forms you need to file a motion requesting a new attorney. Or you can simply ask the judge at your next court appearance.
    • Judges are unlikely to grant such requests when the trial date is near, since a new attorney will have to request an extension of the trial date in order to get caught up.[22]

Part 3
Appealing a Denial

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    Review your financial information again. Make sure that the financial information you gave to the court was accurate. You will not be given a court-appointed attorney if you can afford to pay for one yourself. Review your finances and to be sure that having to hire an attorney would be a hardship upon your and your family.
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    Locate the proper forms. Ask the court clerk what forms you need to submit to appeal the court’s decision denying your request for a court-appointed attorney.[23] Forms vary from state to state and county to county.
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    Submit your forms. Take your completed paperwork to the clerk’s office to submit it. Be sure to attach any supporting documentation required by the forms. Once you have submitted your appeal, wait for the court to send you a copy of its decision.
    • Be sure to observe any deadline for filing your appeal. If you received your initial denial of your request for a court-appointed attorney by mail, it should have contained a deadline to file an appeal. These deadlines may be very short. In Alaska, for example, the deadline is three days.[24]


  • In most civil cases, you are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer. However, there may be free or reduced-cost legal services in your area. Ask the court clerk about local legal aid programs.


  • This article is intended as legal information and does not provide legal advice. If you need legal advice, contact a licensed attorney.

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Categories: Retaining a Lawyer