What is Criminal Legal Aid?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 03 June 2019
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When a person is charged with committing a crime, legal representation is usually considered essential — but it can also be costly. Indigents and persons of lower income often have difficulty affording criminal defense attorneys. Most common law countries recognize a right to legal representation, which in most cases means that the government will provide lawyers for defendants who could not afford to hire their own. This is known as criminal legal aid. Sometimes, governments maintain their own staffs of criminal defense lawyers, while at other times they recruit the services of a criminal legal aid society.

The United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are among the countries with criminal legal aid programs in place. In these countries, right to representation or right to counsel is considered an entitlement of all criminal defendants. If a person who is charged with a crime cannot afford to defend himself, the government will provide free lawyer services in order that his rights not be violated. Few continental European countries guarantee similar rights.


Government-provided criminal legal aid typically comes in the form of a public defender. Public defenders are government lawyers who are assigned by the court to work with criminal defendants who would not otherwise have a lawyer. Defendants typically have no say in the selection of their public defender. Most of the time, public defenders are assigned to cases based on their availability, not necessarily their expertise. All public defenders are skilled at criminal defense, but typically have skills honed to the broadest range of crimes, a contrast to private attorneys who specialize in certain kinds of defense.

Most communities have organizations known as criminal legal aid societies or criminal legal aid groups that offer counseling and legal assistance services to persons charged with crimes. These groups are generally staffed by volunteer, or pro bono, attorneys. Sometimes, governments will refer low-income defendants to the services of a criminal legal aid society. In these instances, the government will pay the society for the defense services. Most of the time, these services are still considered pro bono criminal defense services, as the money is paid not to the lawyer personally, but to the non-profit society.

Aside from working with the government to provide initial defenses, much of the work of legal aid societies is to provide free legal help to those who have already been convicted of crimes. Criminal law in most places allows convicted criminals the right to an appeal, but legal representation is not always guaranteed beyond the initial trial. A defendant who believes that he has been wrongly convicted may seek the assistance of a pro bono lawyer to mount an appeal, seek a retrial, or look for a reduction of charges.


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