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"Ten Principles" Are Key To Creating And Improving Effective Public Defense Systems

"Ten Principles" Are Key To Creating And Improving Effective Public Defense Systems

By Robert E. Hirshon, President

American Bar Association

A criminal defendant's right to a lawyer has been a bedrock principle of our criminal justice system since 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainright, holding that, "The right of one charged with a crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours." Yet for this right to be truly meaningful, the legal representation provided to everyone, including indigent defendants, must be efficient and effective.

Unfortunately, the reality is that public defenders in many jurisdictions are overworked and underfunded, resulting in legal representation of compromised quality. Policy-makers in jurisdictions across the country are beginning to heed calls to reexamine the system. These officials may find guidance in the "Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System," adopted by the American Bar Association earlier this month at its Midyear Meeting in Philadelphia. The Ten Principles are a practical guide for government officials and others involved in the creation, funding, and improvement of public defense systems.

They represent an effort to sift through the various sets of national standards and present, in a clear and concise form, the fundamental criteria for an adequate public defender system. These underlying principles are absolutely crucial in designing a system that provides effective and efficient, high quality, ethical, conflict-free legal representation for criminal defendants who are unable to afford a lawyer.

    The Ten Principles are:

  • Ensuring that the public defense function is independent from political influence;
  • Prompt assignment of counsel for eligible defendants;
  • Matching the defense counsel's ability, training, and experience to the complexity of the case;
  • Guaranteeing that the same lawyer represents the client from the start to the completion of the case;
  • Ensuring that defense counsel and prosecution are on a level playing field with respect to resources, and including defense counsel as an equal partner in the justice system;
  • Ensuring that the public defense delivery system consists of both a defender office and the active participation of the private bar in jurisdictions where the caseload is sufficiently high;
  • Providing defense counsel with sufficient time and a confidential space in which to meet with the client;
  • Controlling defense counsel's workload to permit the delivery of quality representation;
  • Requiring defense counsel to attend continuing legal education; and
  • Supervising and systematically reviewing defense counsel for quality and efficiency according to nationally and locally adopted standards.

The ABA's "Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System" will provide quick and easy, yet still reliable and accurate, guidance needed by policy-makers in jurisdictions across the country to ensure that the fundamental right to counsel is made a reality with high-quality representation.