Generally referred to as public defenders, court-appointed attorneys are lawyers who provide legal counsel to those who have been criminally charged and cannot otherwise obtain or pay for an attorney; the court-appointed legal assistance is usually free, unless the defendant was not charged with the original crime, in which case the suspect must pay for the service. In the United States, access to a court-appointed attorney is a defendant's right under the 6th Amendment; the Miranda Rights require that police inform suspects when they are criminally charged of their right to an attorney. Court-appointed attorneys are employed by the federal government in most cases, but some work for non-profit entities that are funded by the government. Certain criteria must be met to qualify for assistance from a court-appointed attorney; for example, a suspect must prove financially unable to pay for the cost of an attorney, and there must be a possibility of an imprisonment sentence.
When a charged defendant is brought before a judge for a hearing, the judge will usually ask the defendant if he or she wants to hire an attorney privately or use a court-appointed attorney for his or her defense. Before defendants can qualify for access to court-appointed attorneys in the US, they must meet two pieces of criteria; first, they must be facing a criminal charge that carries the potential for an imprisonment sentence if convicted, and second, the defendants must further prove indigent, being unable to afford legal counsel, and will be asked to divulge financial information verifying their situation. If the judge determines that a defendant cannot afford counsel, he or she will approve the request for a court-appointed attorney. In Europe, the requirements vary slightly: the defendant must prove a lack of means to pay for legal counsel and it must be in the interest of justice. A court-appointed attorney is only available to suspects of capital offenses in China, leaving many suspects without proper legal support.
In most cases, court-appointed attorneys are not completely free of charge unless the defendant is not convicted of the crime they were originally charged with. Typically, if a defendant is convicted, a judgment is entered requiring payment based on several factors, including financial situation, severity of the charge, and depth of defense. In most cases, court-appointed attorneys are less costly than private attorneys.
While it is the right of all defendants to be provided with legal counsel, a majority of people do not qualify financially for access to court-appointed attorneys and are forced to hire private counsel. Many people question the quality of defense provided by court-appointed attorneys who, in effect, work for the courts; however, it is their legal responsibility to defend all people fairly to the best of their ability. All persons who are facing criminal charges will be instructed with options for obtaining legal counsel. They can also call their local bar association for further information.
The landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 is largely responsible for the public defense system that is in place in the US today; during this case, the US Supreme Court put a requirement in place stating that state courts must provide an attorney for suspects who could not afford it otherwise. As a result, most attorneys appointed by the court in the US are employed with the federal government. In Europe, a qualified defendant has legal rights to free legal counsel from a court-appointed attorney under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. While not every jurisdiction has a public defender's office, most do; in the event that they do not, the court will usually assign court-appointed attorneys from private legal aid firms with whom they have a contract.