Right to Counsel

You are here

The American legal system is complicated terrain, even for those with the resources to hire skilled attorneys.

Yet millions of Americans cannot afford counsel, as two very different places illustrate. In New Orleans, more than 80 percent of those charged with criminal offenses are represented by public defenders; in Massachusetts, 64 percent of residents who qualified for civil legal aid were turned away due to a lack of funding.

Throughout our history, NLADA has focused on advancing justice through excellence in civil legal aid and public defense so low-income people receive high-quality representation. This work starts with providing access to counsel whenever possible.

Public Defense

It is essential for a person accused of a crime to have meaningful representation as soon as they enter the justice system. While the Supreme Court has decided that anyone facing a loss of liberty has the right to an attorney, low-income people – who are the great majority of people in our criminal justice system – usually must rely on attorneys who are severely under-resourced.

NLADA promotes public policies that improve early access to counsel and high quality representation. A centerpiece of this work is the Right to Counsel Campaign, which focuses on defining the value of indigent defense for the public and policymakers and strategizing about how to integrate indigent defense systems development into criminal justice reform.

Civil Legal Aid

It's easy to think that the phrase just about everyone knows -- "You have the right to attorney; if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you" -- applies to crucial legal matters such as keeping a home, getting protection from domestic violence, obtaining health care, or receiving veterans' benefits. In reality, the constitutional right to counsel applies only to criminal cases that threaten a loss of liberty, and all the examples immediately above are considered civil matters.

As a result, millions of Americans don't receive representation during potentially life-changing events. NLADA works with a range of organizations and individuals to expand civil access to counsel and to improve the quality of that representation. Learn more about our work in the Civil Legal Aid section of this site.