Not everyone is entitled to a public defender. There has to be financial need. Also, don’t be so sure that you want a public defender. If hiring a private attorney is an option for you, it might be a better idea.
Everyone has the right to a defense, and if you are facing jail time, you have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. The judge isn’t going to take your word for it, though. You have to fill out an Affidavit of Assets and Liabilities at your first court appearance. Then, the judge decides whether you will get a free attorney based on the information you provide.
Public defenders are only available in criminal cases. The court will not appoint a free attorney in a divorce or any other type of civil case, except a paternity matter. If you have a civil case, there may be a legal aid organization that can help. Also, many people don’t realize that a lot of civil cases don’t require any attorney fees up front. These are called contingency cases, and you pay your lawyer at the end of the case if and when you win. There is no fee if the case is lost. So, anyone can afford to hire a contingency lawyer.
Public defenders are free, but they might not be your best option. Public defenders are paid for by taxpayers, as a government service, rather than by individual clients. This doesn’t mean they aren’t good attorneys. They are licensed and trained like other attorneys, and they handle a lot of cases so their experience is solid. But like most things, you get what you pay for. Public defenders typically handle a lot of cases and many are overworked. The main benefit of a private attorney is their time.
If you hire a private attorney, you will be paying them hourly, so the time you pay for is yours. An established law firm is going to have the ability to devote more time to your case, as a general rule, and put extra effort into investigating and researching your defense. They’re busy, too, but they have an added incentive for moving your case along quickly because that’s how they get paid.
We’re not saying all private defense attorneys are great. Some really aren’t. But if you choose wisely, you’ll be in a good position to get a positive outcome. Look for someone who has a lot of experience handling similar cases in the same courthouse. If you later realize you made a bad choice in hiring your private defense attorney, you can change your mind at any time. You can fire him or her and find someone else. This is not an option with a public defender. You generally do not get to choose who represents you when you have a court-appointed lawyer.
Written by Michael Helfand