Do I Qualify for a Public Defender?

lawyer defending client to judge

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant the right to be represented by an attorney. However, it wasn’t until the Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 that criminal defendants unable to afford a lawyer were granted the right to free legal representation. 

How does one qualify for a public defender? 

The New Jersey Office of Public Defender (NJOPD) does not make a determination as to who is awarded representation. Rather, this decision is made by the court in which the person is being charged with an offense. A person who wants to have a public defender must fill out a 5A form, also known as a uniform defendant intake form. The information provided on this form will be reviewed by the court to see if the defendant meets the indigency standard. If the person qualifies for a public defender, his/her case will be sent to the NJOPD, which will assign an attorney to the defendant. If he/she needs an interpreter, this will also be provided. 

What Is the Indigency Standard? 

The term indigency essentially means to be poor or have insufficient income. New Jersey weighs a defendant’s income and assets against his/her expenses and debts to determine if he/she meets the indigency standards to qualify for a public defender. To qualify for a public defender, a person must have an income that is no more than 25% above the poverty line, based on the number of people in the household. The figures below are current as of January 2020 and are subject to change. 

Household SizeAnnual Gross Income

What Kinds of Cases Qualify for a Public Defender?

A person charged with an indictable offense (felony) or disorderly persons offense in New Jersey may be eligible for a public defender. Other types of cases in which a public defender may be available to indigent individuals include:

  • Juvenile Delinquency cases
  • Drug Court cases
  • Intensive Supervision Program cases
  • Special Hearing Unit cases
  • Family Court Title 9 Child Abuse and Neglect cases

Is a Public Defender Worth it? 

Having a public defender is better than facing criminal charges in New Jersey without any kind of legal counsel. However, the NJOPD has limited resources and cannot always dedicate the time and effort that a given case may require. There may be certain legal strategies that are more time consuming that a public defender simply doesn’t have time to conduct. Public defenders often don’t have time to communicate with their clients outside of court or on a regular basis. This can lead to you being in the dark or not having adequate time to discuss your case with your attorney. You also don’t get to choose who your attorney is. You might get a very experienced attorney or one who just got out of law school with little to no experience.

In addition, a public defender in New Jersey is not actually free. The NJOPD is required by state law to collect a “reasonable” fee from a client once the term of representation is finished. The client must pay this fee within 60 days of the disposition of the case. Failure to pay will result in a lien on the defendant’s assets. 

For these reasons, even if a person qualifies for a public defender, it is worth considering hiring a private attorney instead. A private attorney will be able to take the time to review every aspect of the case to determine the best possible defense. In some cases, private attorneys can offer payment plans for those who are on a limited or fixed income, allowing them to pay the fee over a much longer period of time than provided by the public defender. 

How Do I Choose a Private Attorney? 

For those who choose to hire a private attorney, it is critical that a person find the right one with the skills necessary to maximize the chances of a positive outcome. The most critical factor is experience–the attorney must have worked with clients facing the same or similar charges. One also wants to work with attorneys who have a long track record of positive outcomes for their clients. Checking client ratings on Google, Avvo, and other attorney rating websites can help give insight into this. 

Another thing to consider is whether the attorney has a dedicated client services team. Attorneys who are in high demand spend a lot of time handling case-related matters, including paperwork, phone calls, and court appointments. Having a team of client service professionals ensures that every client gets consistent, timely communication on the status of the case. 

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