The Right to Legal Representation in America

The right to legal representation is a fundamental constitutional right in the American legal system. The American justice system is adversarial. For this system of justice to gain legitimacy, it must promote equal and adequate representation of all parties throughout the judicial process. However, this seems to be more of the case in theory than in practice.

For many years, the American justice system had failed to live up to its legitimacy. For many years, legal representation was a preserve for those had the financial muscle and wielded political influence. According to Banks and O’Brien (2008), it was only in a few criminal cases were defendants is allowed representation. However, this was only if the accused persons had the economic power to buy such representations. Almost no civil case had legal representation.

However, the decision in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) changed the narrative and heightened the right to an attorney for those charged with various crimes. It is in this light that this blog post focuses on the contributions of this case to the American criminal justice jurisprudence. We also investigate why America has failed in drafting a system of justice that adequately caters for the impecunious defendants.

The Right to Attorney in Criminal Cases

The right to legal counsel of a criminal defendant is provided for under the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution. It is a requirement under the said provision that the accused persons be provided with counsel in all criminal prosecutions.

The provision lays it bear that this is an inherent right and is not dependent on the accused person’s economic or financial status. That implies that a criminal defendant is entitled to an attorney in all criminal trials whether they can afford the legal fees or otherwise.

Therefore, in the event the accused person is not able to meet the cost of the legal fees, the state will assume the costs and appoint an attorney for such defendants. The right to legal representation should not be read to limit its meaning and operation within the criminal trial in itself. It stretches beyond and applies as well to the point of arrest of the defendant.

Why the Need for an Attorney?

A defense attorney plays a very fundamental role in defending the accused person throughout the criminal process. The defense attorney executes certain specific duties within various stages of the criminal trial, which depends on a number of factors such as the facts and the nature of the case. The following are some of the core tasks performed by the defense attorney:

The defense attorney offers counsel to the accused person about his rights and briefs him about the various stages and likely outcomes throughout the criminal trial. He also acts as the custodian of the rights of the accused person by ensuring that none of them is violated. At certain stages in the trial, the defense attorney will enter plea bargain on behalf of the client.

Overall, the defense counsel acts as a guardian to the rights of the accused and ensures that justice is done for the accused.

Gideon v. Wainwright

This is one of the landmark decisions in the American criminal justice jurisprudence. The case expanded the scope of the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution. The existing position pre-dating Gideon v Wainwright was that the right to legal representation was only limited to serious criminal offenses and not petty crimes or misdemeanors.

The brief facts of the case are as follows. Gideon, the defendant had asked for legal representation during the trial the reason being that he was unable to afford to hire one. His request was however thwarted.  The trial judge defended the refusal to grant the defendant legal representation arguing that the state laws only allowed appointment of an attorney only in capital cases.

The defendant while in custody petitioned the Supreme Court challenging the decision of the learned trial judge terming it as a violation of his right under the Sixth Amendment. The Supreme Court sided with him.

The highest court affirmed that the right to legal representation irrespective of the criminal charges is a necessity not luxury. The Supreme Court’s decision therefore overturned the decision in Betts v Brady and other similar decisions pre-dating Gideon’s case hence allowing a more progressive interpretation of the Sixth Amendment to cover all criminal cases and not just some.

Not There Yet

Despite the decision in Gideon case, adequate legal representation of poor defendants is yet to be achieved. Why? Quite a number of factors come to play. According to Banks and O’Brien (2008), the approximate total expenditure by federal and state government towards ensuring that the poor are adequately represented in courts is $3.3 billion every year.

Nonetheless, this has not been very successful due to the following reasons. From incompetence of the attorneys to insufficient funding as per the budget, poor management of the funds and other aspects such as wastage, huge case backlogs, understaffing etc.

All these factors, independently or combined, hamper attempts to enable the impoverished to access legal representation similar to those who have the ability to hire attorneys.

In conclusion, it is important to note that not all is lost. A lot more need to be done to ensure that justice is equally met both by both the rich and by poor on the same parlance.

2 thoughts on “The Right to Legal Representation in America”

  1. Court appointed attorneys are inept and give zero time to prepare for their clients. Only showing up 5 minutes before trial and calling out their client’s name because they have not bothered to meet the client or prepare for the case.


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