Do You Qualify For a Public Defender?

If you’re unable to afford legal counsel the good news is, all states provide legal assistance to individuals charged with a crime in state court who are financially unable to retain private counsel. The bad news is, the answer to whether or not you qualify is not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ 
Firstly, the maximum income level to be eligible for a public defender differs from state to state, and even court to court in some cases. In rural areas, or in courts with meager resources, there may not be public defenders on staff with the court available to represent you. 
In some courts, judges allow for what’s called “partial indigency” representation, where you’ll have the help of a public defender, but are expected to reimburse the court some of the cost of representation after the trial. 

How To Apply For A Public Defender:

Firstly, you’re going to have to complete the required application form for your state (a.k.a. the Application for Public Defender, Court-Appointed Counsel or Guardian Ad Litem), and arrive to court with documents in-hand that prove your claims. When you apply for a public defender, you must bring:

  • The most recent pay stubs from your job, as well as your spouse’s or significant other’s employment information;
  • Proof of government benefits (i.e. social security, financial aid, unemployment, food stamps, etc.);
  • Your lease agreement, or a letter from the person with whom you are living;
  • Proof of child support and/or alimony;
  • Proof of assets (i.e. bank statement, real property, home, property that is readily converted to cash to pay for a lawyer)
  • Proof of expenses.*

*Proof of your gross (before taxes) household income must be provided, which may include pay stubs, income tax returns, letters from employers, or award letters from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or unemployment. Household income includes documentation from any family member living in the household who is working and contributing to the common support of the household. This does not include a roommate's income, unless you have proprietary rights to your roommate's income.

After Filling Out The Application Form, You Must Either:

  • Request a Public Defender at your arraignment (your very first court appearance);
  • Go to walk-in court and ask the Judge for a Public Defender. Walk-in court is an open court in which you can talk to a judge directly about various things. These hours differ from County to County, so check yours to clarify the hours of operation.
  • Request a Public Defender any time you are in Court and believe you need representation (if you wait until court to request a Public Defender though, you run the risk of having that request denied).

Don’t Forget!

  • There is an application fee which must be paid by most people who apply for the public defender. There are some people who are indigent for whom the fee is waived, but to be safe, have some money on you when you apply.
  • Indigency is determined by the evaluation of household income; household size; assets; and expenses. Unfortunately, the requirements are not explicitly stated anywhere, so you’re going to have to go through the application process to determine whether or not you qualify.
  • Immediately after the Court appoints a public defender to represent you, you must make an appointment to meet with your public defender; if you don’t make and keep appointments with the public defender’s office, or you fail to communicate with the public defender’s office, the Public Defender’s Office could withdraw from your case, leaving you without a lawyer.
  • It is your responsibility to appear at all court dates as ordered, and to keep the Public Defender advised of changes in your address and phone number.

If The Public Defender's Office Is Not Appointed To Represent You:

  • You may hire a lawyer to represent you;
  • Represent yourself;
  • Use www.Got.Law to book a free consultation with an attorney near you;
  • Apply to a local University's law office for representation by a student attorney;
  • Apply for representation from an alternative pro bono legal service group such as Colorado Legal Services (CLS).

Most states have an alternative pro bono legal service group, such as CLS. CLS is a little more straight-forward with their requirements from applicants - and a good example of what to expect in other states as well. Essentially, if you are below 125% of the Federal Poverty Level, you are in the running for representation from CLS. 

To qualify for CLS, your gross income must be below the designated amount below (the entire income of the house includes tips, investment income, retirement/pension income, unemployment compensation, etc.)

Size of Family 2015 Monthly Income 2015 Yearly Income 1 1,226 14,713 2 1,659 19,913 3 2,093 25,113 4 2,526 30,313 5 2,959 35,513 6 3,393 40,713 7 3,826 45,913 8 4,259 51,113

For family units with more than eight (8) members, add $5,200/year or $433/month for each additional member in the family. These guidelines are based on gross income.To qualify for CLS, your gross income must be below the designated amount below (the entire income of the house includes tips, investment income, retirement/pension income, unemployment compensation, etc.)
Though your eligibility based on income is not distinctly disclosed, it will probably be around the same level as Colorado Legal Services

. Of course, you should always consider the pros and cons of hiring a public defender as well.

Need advice?
Revised: May 16, 2022, 8:07 a.m.
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