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If you have been accused of a crime that has the potential for jail time and if you cannot afford a lawyer, then the court should have offered to appoint a lawyer to represent you. Depending on where you are located and the nature of your crime, you may be represented by a public defender (a full-time employee of the state who is responsible for representing defendants unable to afford their own attorney) or a court-appointed attorney who also has a private practice but is hired by the court on a case-by-case basis to represent indigent clients when necessary.
Your public defender or court-appointed lawyer is required to be independent, and act as your counsel and advocate. Just because he is paid by the government doesn’t mean that he is working in collaboration with the prosecutors, judge or police.
You should expect your appointed lawyer to have experience defending people accused of crimes similar to the crime of which you are accused, but it’s important to remember that lawyers are individuals – some are more experienced and some are less experienced, some have comforting personalities and others may come across as gruff and even belligerent. So the possibility exists that you may be assigned a lawyer with whom you don’t get along, or who doesn’t understand the complexities of your case. If you feel that you would be better suited with another attorney, there are a few steps you can take. It’s important to remember, however, that none of these are guaranteed to succeed because in all cases the judge must agree to let you switch attorneys, and the judge is not required to grant your request.
Requesting a New Lawyer
Just because you are entitled to representation by a public defender or court-appointed attorney does not mean you’re entitled to hand-pick your attorney. However, you can request that a new attorney be appointed to represent you, and that request may be granted. Depending on the jurisdiction, you may have to make this initial request to the judge or to the public defender’s office. The judge and/or public defender’s office will look at your reasons for wanting a new court-appointed lawyer, and will also consider whether you’ve already changed lawyers on this case. A first request is usually more likely to be granted than any subsequent requests.
You can also ask your lawyer to request that they be relieved from the case. If the judge grants their motion, a new attorney may be appointed to represent you. But before agreeing to the attorney’s request to withdraw from the case, get confirmation that a new attorney will be appointed to you. In some instances, the judge may interpret your agreement with the request to mean that you are able to hire and pay for a private lawyer, and no longer have a need for a court-appointed lawyer or public defender.
Hire a Lawyer of Your Choice
If you can afford to pay a lawyer, you should consider hiring a new one to replace your court-appointed lawyer. The advantage of hiring a private attorney is that you’ll be able to choose the attorney you think will do the best job of representing you. (It’s important to understand that public defenders and court-appointed lawyers represent clients who are unable to afford an attorney. If your personal circumstances change while in the midst of a case and you can now afford an attorney, the court may reevaluate your eligibility for a court-appointed attorney. Depending on the stage of your case, the court-appointed attorney may be required to withdraw and you may be required to hire a new attorney.)
You can also attempt to find an attorney who is willing to take your case at no cost or low cost. Many lawyers engage in pro bono, or charitable, work, and if you have a persuasive case, pro bono attorneys may be interested in representing you.
People are permitted to represent themselves in court cases. This should only be an option of last resort if you are unhappy with your public defender or court-appointed attorney, and are unable to hire a private attorney to represent you. The decision to represent yourself is one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Lawyers go to school for years and get on-the-job training to learn their profession; it may take you hours, days or weeks of work to understand just the fundamentals of the law as they apply to your case. In many jurisdictions, however, the court will still require that there be an attorney available to consult with you on strategy, the law and legal procedures.
Lastly, remember that in criminal cases, all requests to change attorneys–regardless of the reason – must be approved by the court. Because the judge does not automatically grant these requests, you should make every effort to repair your relationship with your existing attorney, and make an effort to work well together.