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National Committee on the Right to Counsel

Resource Kit

"The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some counrties, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law."

--United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black,
Gideon V. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)

In the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the fundamental role that legal representation plays in a fair criminal justice system. In this case, the Justices unanimously concluded that states have a constitutional obligation under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to provide lawyers to people who can't afford them. According to the decision, "[t]he right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to have the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial, and petitioner's trial and conviction without the assistance of counsel violated the Fourteenth Amendment."

The right to counsel is the most fundamental procedural safeguard to assure a fair trial in which the government and the accused stand equal before the law. Unfortunately, there is pervasive evidence that Gideon's constitutional promise is not being fulfilled in many states and counties around the country. Some fail to provide adequate funds, standards, training and staffing for public defender offices. Other areas do not have public defender offices and instead contract with the lowest bidder to provide representation for defendants who cannot afford lawyers. There are even jurisdictions where some defendants are not provided with lawyers, even though the Constitution requires it.

About the Committee

The Constitution Project and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association have brought together an extraordinary group of Americans, those with experience as judges, prosecutors, defenders, victim advocates, law enforcers and policymakers, to examine whether poor defendants are being provided with competent, experienced lawyers who have the necessary resources to defend them, and to create consensus recommendations for any necessary reforms.

The honorary chair of the bipartisan committee is the Honorable Walter Mondale, former Vice President of the United States and Attorney General for the state of Minnesota. Three committee co-chairs bring diverse experiences as a president of the National District Attorneys Association, a federal appeals judge, and a state Supreme Court Justice. The 16 committee members will study the legal and ethical requirements for adequate criminal defense representation

The Supreme Court

Facts and Figures

Case Studies

  • No Representation by Counsel (pdf)
    The dirty little secret of the criminal justice system in America is the number of people accused of crime denied the right to counsel.
  • Underfunding (pdf)
    Since the U.S. Supreme Court, in Gideon, ordered the states to provide indigent defense services, 22 states have undertaken to fund indigent defense services entirely at the state level while another six states now fund at least 75 percent of all indigent defense costs. Three other states fund at least 50 percent of the cost of defense services. Louisiana and Alabama rely on a combination of state funding and court costs. The rest rely to a large extent on local funding or, in the case of Pennsylvania and Utah, rely on county funding exclusively.
  • Lack of Independence (pdf)
    Courts should have no greater oversight role over lawyers for indigent defendants than they do for paying clients.
  • Lack of Enforceable Standards (pdf)
    The concept of using standards to address quality concerns is not unique to the field of indigent defense. In fact, the strong pressures of favoritism, partisanship, and/or profits on public officials underscore the need for standards to assure the fundamental quality in all facets of government.
  • Excessive Caseloads (pdf)
    In states across the country, public defense attorneys are carrying crushing caseloads far in excess of these standards, forcing them to jump from client to client. Many individuals get nothing more than a few minutes of their attorneys' time and a hurried guilty plea.

10 Principles for Quality Representation

In February 2002, the American Bar Association adopted a set of 10 principles, which "constitute the fundamental criteria to be met for a public defense delivery system to deliver effective and efficient, high quality, ethical, conflict-free representation to accused persons who cannot afford to hire an attorney." The purpose of the Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System is to distill the existing voluminous national standards for indigent defense systems down to their most basic elements into a succinct form that busy officials and policymakers can readily review and apply.

  1. The public defense function, including the selection, funding, and payment of defense counsel, is independent. [click for more]
  2. Where the caseload is sufficiently high, the public defense delivery system consists of both a defender office and the active participation of the private bar. [click for more]
  3. Clients are screened for eligibiligy, and defense counsel is assigned and notified of appointment, as soon as feasible after clients' arrest, detention, or request for counsel. [click for more]
  4. Defense counsel is provided sufficient time and a confidential space within which to meet with the client. [click for more]
  5. Defense counsel's workload is controlled to permit the rendering of quality representation. [click for more]
  6. Defense counsel's ability, training, and experience match the complexity of the case. [click for more]
  7. The same attorney continuously represents the client until completion of the case. [click for more]
  8. There is parity between defense counsel and the prosecution with respect ot resources and defense counsel is included as an equal partner in the justice system. [click for more]
  9. Defense counsel is provided with and required to attend continuing legal education. [click for more]
  10. Defense counsel is supervised ans systematically reviewed for quality and efficiency according to nationally and locally adopted standards. [click for more]

View Full ABA Report (pdf)



Review of Past Indigent Defense Reports (msaccess, 7 Mb)


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