Court-appointed attorneys and public defenders are cornerstones of the American justice system. Not only do they uphold the constitutional guarantee to legal counsel, they are often the first line of defense for many of those accused of committing a crime. However, they are still the subject of confusion for many — how does the court-appointed attorney system work? Who can hire one? Who pays for them? 

While the lawyers at Thiessen Law Firm may only represent people as retained attorneys, we have great respect for public defenders and want to ensure that anyone accused of a crime fully understands the options available to them — including the ability to be represented by talented court-appointed attorneys. Let’s take a closer look and clear up a few misconceptions.

What is a court appointed attorney? 

Under the Texas constitution, anyone who is charged with an offense higher than a class C misdemeanor and is deemed indigent (or unable to afford their own counsel) in accordance with the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure is entitled to representation from a court-appointed attorney.

Court-appointed attorneys are real, experienced lawyers who are assigned to a case by the court. While you do not get to select a court-appointed attorney, you will still be given qualified representation. 

How do I get a court appointed attorney?

Generally speaking, court-appointed attorneys are reserved for those who are considered indigent and therefore unable to afford an attorney. Now, let’s talk about who qualifies as “indigent” according to the law.

If you fall into this category, the court has a responsibility to appoint a lawyer for you in any criminal proceeding that could potentially lead to confinement as punishment. And if it’s determined that justice requires representation in any other criminal proceeding, you’ll also be entitled to a court-appointed attorney.

If you believe that you qualify as indigent, you can fill out a financial questionnaire and enter into record that you are unable to afford an attorney. There is no single dollar amount that determines whether or not you are eligible to receive a court-appointed attorney. The factors that determine eligibility include: 

  • Whether or not you were able to bond out
  • If you did bond out, who paid it
  • The number of dependents you have
  • Whether or not you currently receive other government benefits (food stamps, disability, social security, etc.)

Now, when it comes to the timeline for appointing counsel, things vary based on the population of the county where you’re arrested. In counties with less than 250,000 people, the court or its designee must appoint an attorney no later than the end of the third working day after you request one. In counties with a population of 250,000 or more, the appointment must be made by the end of the first working day after your request.

Keep in mind that if you’re arrested under a warrant issued in a different county and you request appointed counsel, the county that issued the warrant must appoint an attorney within the specified timeframes, regardless of whether adversarial judicial proceedings have started in that county.

Are court appointed attorneys free?

Given that court appointed attorneys are here to help those who cannot afford to appoint representation, many expect court appointed attorneys to be 100% free in Texas. This is not the case. 

Court-appointed attorneys are not really free. You may be required to pay back the court attorneys fees as a condition of probation or bond. Additionally, there is always the tax on the legal system of non-indigent defendants electing to take court-appointed lawyers or public defenders, who can take representation away from the indigent individuals whose lives often depend on it. 

If you can afford to pay a private attorney, it benefits you and the system to free up the time of the court-appointed lawyers, so that they can truly defend the defenseless and keep our legal system operating properly.

What can I do if my court appointed attorney isn’t helping?

First things first, no lawyers — retained or appointed — are created 100% equal. Public defenders are often just as qualified as retained attorneys. However, in certain contexts, you could wind up with a court appointed attorney who isn’t perfectly aligned to your needs.

In this scenario, you have three options: 

  1. Revisit whether or not you can afford to retain an attorney.  Depending on the kinds of charges you are facing, you may benefit from hiring a lawyer who truly specializes in the offense you’re accused of committing. While court appointed attorneys can bring with them specialized knowledge, you are not able to choose between public defenders, and therefore have no say in what experience they bring to the table. 
  2. Request that you be appointed a new attorney. While there is no guarantee that the court will honor your request, there are times when genuine misalignment between client and counsel can compromise a case, at which point the court may decide to appoint you a new public defender. 
  3. If you cannot afford an attorney and feel you have no other recourse, you are able to file a complaint with the State Bar in pursuit of new representation. This should be an absolute last resort reserved for situations where your attorney is negligent or a genuine conflict of interest is being ignored. 

In certain situations, such as when there’s a change in the offense you’re charged with, the court may appoint new counsel for you as long as there is a valid reason stated on the record. 

Hire Thiessen Law Firm to come to your defense, your future is worth the fight.

Generally speaking, you should only take a court-appointed attorney in Texas if your life depends on it — for your benefit and the system’s. If you have the ability to pay for a private attorney, you should, as the choice to hire a trial attorney to defend your rights could be the difference between serious jail time and a Not Guilty verdict.  

Mark Thiessen is the only lawyer in America who is triple board-certified in Criminal Law and DWI*. He takes on complex, high-stakes cases, fighting and securing the best possible outcomes for his clients. If you or a loved one is facing a charge that you need to beat, you need to give Thiessen Law Firm a call.

If you or a loved one is facing serious charges in Texas, call Thiessen Law Firm and ask how our trial attorneys can support you during this difficult time. We use our expansive knowledge of science and the law to win Not Guilty verdicts in even the toughest cases. 

Remember, your attorney is your last line of defense. Call Thiessen Law Firm today at (713) 864-9000 or contact us online for a free consultation. 

*Mark Thiessen’s Board Certifications include:

  1. Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization
  2. DUI Defense by the National College for DUI Defense as approved through the American Bar Association
  3. DUI Law by the DUI Defense Lawyers Association
  4. Board Certified Advocate Criminal Trial Law by the NBTA Foundation

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Mark Thiessen is an aggressive trial lawyer best known for his devotion to justice for his clients and high rank as a DWI Super Lawyer in Texas.