ABA Ten Principles Of a Public Defense Delivery System

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Approved by American Bar Association House of Delegates, February 2002. The American Bar Association recommends that jurisdictions use these Principles to assess promptly the needs of public defense delivery systems and clearly communicate those needs to policy makers.


The public defense function, including the selection, funding, and payment of defense counsel, is independent

The public defense function should be independent from political influence and subject to judicial supervision only in the same manner and to the same extent as retained counsel. To safeguard independence and to promote efficiency and quality of services, a nonpartisan board should oversee defender, assigned counsel, or contract systems. Removing oversight from the judiciary ensures judicial independence from undue political pressures and is an important means of furthering the independence of public defense. The selection of the chief defender and staff should be made on the basis of merit, and recruitment of attorneys should involve special efforts aimed at achieving diversity in attorney staff.

Where the caseload is sufficiently high, the public defense delivery system consists of both a defender office and the active participation of the private bar

The private bar participation may include part-time defenders, a controlled assigned counsel plan, or contracts for services. The appointment process should never be ad hoc, but should be according to a coordinated plan directed by a full-time administrator who is also an attorney familiar with the varied requirements of practice in the jurisdiction. Since the responsibility to provide defense services rests with the state, there should be state funding and a statewide structure responsible for ensuring uniform quality statewide.

Clients are screened for eligibility, and defense counsel is assigned and notified of appointment, as soon as feasible after clients' arrest, detention, or request for counsel

Counsel should be furnished upon arrest, detention, or request, and usually within 24 hours thereafter.

Defense counsel is provided sufficient time and a confidential space within which to meet with the client

Counsel should interview the client as soon as practicable before the preliminary examination or the trial date. Counsel should have confidential access to the client for the full exchange of legal, procedural, and factual information between counsel and client. To ensure confidential communications, private meeting space should be available in jails, prisons, courthouses, and other places where defendants must confer with counsel.

Defense counsel's workload is controlled to permit the rendering of quality representation

Counsel's workload, including appointed and other work, should never be so large as to interfere with the rendering of quality representation or lead to the breach of ethical obligations, and counsel is obligated to decline appointments above such levels. National caseload standards should in no event be exceeded, but the concept of workload (i.e., caseload adjusted by factors such as case complexity, support services, and an attorney's nonrepresentational duties) is a more accurate measurement.

Defense counsel's ability, training, an experience match the complexity of the case

Counsel should never be assigned a case that counsel lacks the experience or training to handle competently, and counsel is obligated to refuse appointment if unable to provide ethical, high quality representation.

The same attorney continuously represents the client until completion of the case

Often referred to as "vertical representation," the same attorney should continuously represent the client from initial assignment through the trial and sentencing. The attorney assigned for the direct appeal should represent the client throughout the direct appeal.


There is parity between defense counsel and the prosecution with respect to resources and defense counsel is included as an equal partner in the justice system

There should be parity of workload, salaries and other resources (such as benefits, technology, facilities, legal research, support staff, paralegals, investigators, and access to forensic services and experts) between prosecution and public defense. Assigned counsel should be paid a reasonable fee in addition to actual overhead and expenses. Contracts with private attorneys for public defense services should never be let primarily on the basis of cost; they should specify performance requirements and the anticipated workload, provide an overflow or funding mechanism for excess, unusual, or complex cases, and separately fund expert, investigative, and other litigation support services. No part of the justice system should be expanded or the workload increased without consideration of the impact that expansion will have on the balance and on the other components of the justice system. Public defense should participate as an equal partner in improving the justice system. This principle assumes that the prosecutor is adequately funded and supported in all respects, so that securing parity will mean that defense counsel is able to provide quality legal representation.

Defense counsel is provided with and required to attend continuing legal education

Counsel and staff providing defense services should have systematic and comprehensive training appropriate to their areas of practice and at least equal to that received by prosecutors.

Defense counsel is supervised and systematically reviewed for quality and efficiency according to nationally and locally adopted standards

The defender office (both professional and support staff ), assigned counsel,or contract defenders should be supervised and periodically evaluated for competence and efficiency.


See The Role and Responsibility of a Criminal Defense Lawyer