In the complicated criminal justice system, defense lawyers serve as a defendant’s confidant, protector, and guide. Usually, defense attorneys get classified into two categories: private lawyers paid by a defendant and court-appointed lawyers that are paid by the government.
Some defendants are able to afford to employ a private criminal defense lawyer. For the ones who can’t afford one, the court might appoint counsel to represent a defendant. Those court-appointed lawyers are either public defenders on a government salary, or they’re so-called “panel lawyers,” local lawyers selected from a panel. A small part of defendants can represent themselves and are called “pro per” or “pro se” defendants.
What Do Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers Do?
Criminal defense lawyers investigate the case against their clients, research the facts, and strive to negotiate deals with adversaries. Those deals may include decreased bail, decreased charges, and decreased sentences. Due to numerous factors—public and political pressure, overloaded court calendars, overcrowded jails—deal-making has increased in importance and has now become a critical aspect in unclogging a backed-up criminal justice system. Read more about Philadelphia criminal lawyers.
In addition, criminal defense lawyers help formulate a plea, examine witnesses, analyze a prosecutor’s case, evaluate the possible sentences, go over search and seizure procedures, gather evidence, and question witnesses. Defense counsel also can advise on possible immigration consequences or additional consequences of a criminal record, conviction, or plea.
Plus, defense counsel provides more personal services by providing a defendant a reality check as to the potential results and by assisting a defendant in dealing with the fears and frustrations that stem from being tossed into the criminal justice system. Of course, if no plea deal is made, the defense attorney represents a defendant at trial.
How Much Does Legal Representation Cost?
A big factor in terms of legal representation is a defendant’s financial status and if a defendant is able to afford a private attorney.
Private criminal defense counsel charges either by a set or fixed fee or an hourly basis. They cannot charge a contingency fee, which is a payment that depends upon the result of the case. If a defendant is indigent, the court might appoint a panel attorney or government-paid public defender.
For judges, the right to free counsel usually kicks in once an indigent defendant faces a prison or jail sentence. If there isn’t any possibility of incarceration—for instance, the judge says on the record that he won’t sentence a defendant to jail time—a defendant may not be entitled to free legal counsel.
The right to free counsel doesn’t mean a right to an attorney of choice. A defendant who has been appointed legal counsel usually does not get to choose in the manner that a paying defendant will.
Are Private Lawyers Better Than Court-Appointed Lawyers?
Sometimes defendants think that private counsel possesses a distinct advantage over an overworked panel attorney or public defender’s office paid a minimum fee. However, does private counsel offer better representation than government-paid, court-appointed defense attorneys?
Many private lawyers are former public defenders or prosecutors. Based on research that assesses the results of having a court-appointed versus private attorney, data appears to indicate that the outcome for defendants often are the same. For instance, research indicated that defendants who are represented by public defenders or private counsel fared similarly in sentencing and conviction rates. This type of statistical evidence isn’t always clear or reliable due to complicating factors. For example, clients who are represented by private counsel frequently have no or short previous criminal records, whereby indigent defendants are two times as likely to be repeat offenders. What’s also not clear—and what creates among the main uncertainties of the criminal justice system—is whether a private attorney is able to negotiate a better plea deal than a court-appointed lawyer.
Ultimately, the commitment, skills, and experience of the particular lawyer at hand—regardless of whether she or he is a private attorney, panel attorney or public defender—are the top indicator of the representation quality.
Option for Self-Representation
What’s clear is that being represented by an attorney is almost always the better option. Nonetheless, some defendants represent themselves. The choice of whether a defendant is able to self-represent ultimately is up to the judge, and not the defendant. The judge has to determine a defendant’s competency. That is because the defendant who can’t offer a competent defense can’t get a fair shake, even if he’s adamant about not accepting the offerings of court-appointed counsel. While determining whether the defendant is able to self-represent, the judge will consider factors like:
- whether a defendant is knowingly giving up her right to a lawyer
- whether a defendant knows the nature of the proceedings
- a defendant’s education and language skills
- severity of the crime
Finding a Lawyer
When searching for private defense counsel, seek a lawyer specializing in criminal defense and who practices in the jurisdiction in which charges are pending. Local attorneys are familiar with the prosecutors and judges in your area.