Some people who are compelled by the government (rather than a private person or entity) to appear in court are entitled to have attorneys appointed to represent them at government expense, in whole or in part. Examples of situations where people are compelled by the government to appear in court are:
If a person is involved in any of these types of court cases and determined by the court to be financially eligible, he or she will be provided with legal representation by an attorney who is appointed by the court and paid from state or local government funds. If the person’s case is in a municipal or justice (county) court, the city or county is responsible for appointing and paying the attorney. If the case is in a state circuit court, the state is responsible for appointing and paying the attorney.
In addition, people who are incarcerated and who file petitions for a writ of habeas corpus and people who file petitions for post-conviction relief from a criminal conviction are entitled to appointed counsel if they are financially eligible. A person who wishes to file an appeal from any case that originally qualified for public defense representation, may be eligible to have the state Office of Public Defense Services or a public defender represent them on appeal.
Someone is financially eligible to have an attorney appointed to represent him or her if a judge determines that hiring an attorney would cause a “substantial financial hardship” for the individual in providing basic economic necessities for the person and his or her dependents. An individual must apply for court-appointed counsel by completing a detailed financial statement and agreeing to provide documentation concerning income, assets and debts for the person and the person’s spouse, if any. This information generally is provided to a court employee who reviews the financial information and makes a recommendation to the judge whether or not the person is eligible for government-paid counsel.
If someone is determined to be eligible, the court may still require that person to pay some amount toward the cost of court-appointed counsel. In addition, anyone who applies for court-appointed counsel may be charged a modest “application fee,” if their financial situation allows the payment of such a fee. In criminal cases where a person is convicted, a defendant who has been provided with court-appointed counsel can be sentenced by the judge to “repay” all or part of the costs of public defense representation, but only if the judge determines the person has the financial ability to make such a repayment. Anyone who receives court-appointed counsel can be ordered to repay all or part of the costs of public defense representation, but only if the judge determines the person has the financial ability to make such a repayment.
Public defense attorneys represent their clients just as privately hired attorneys do. These attorneys have an ethical responsibility to work for the best possible resolution of the case for the client. As with privately hired attorneys, all dealings between a court-appointed attorney and the client are confidential. Attorneys who provide public defense representation, at least in state circuit court cases, are not only subject to the Oregon State Bar’s ethical requirements that govern all lawyers, but must also meet qualification standards that have been established for public defense representation. These attorneys represent their clients — not the government.
Public defense attorneys are also entitled to have non-attorney services, such as investigator, interpreter and expert witness services, paid for by the government if these services are determined to be reasonable and necessary for the attorney’s representation.
Individuals who are determined to be eligible for court-appointed counsel do not have the right to choose who their attorney will be. However, they do have the right to have competent legal representation.
Questions concerning public defense representation in state courts may be submitted to the Office of Public Defense Services, 1175 Court St., NE, Salem, OR 97301-4030. Or call (503) 378-3349.