Standards for the Delivery of Public Defense Services

Standards help defense attorneys, indigent defense systems, and states and counties know what is required of them to provide the right to counsel services guaranteed by our Constitution.  The strong pressures placed on public officials by favoritism, partisanship, and profits all underscore the need for standards to assure fundamental quality in all facets of government and all components of the justice system.  Using standards to assess uniformity and quality of performance is not unique to the field of indigent defense.  For instance, realizing that standards are necessary to both compare bids equitably and to assure quality products, policymakers long ago stopped merely taking the lowest bid to build a hospital, school, or bridge, and instead require that minimum quality standards of safety always be met.  So too must there be an absolute minimum level of quality that must always be met when providing defense services, whether to the rich or to the poor.  Ensuring the rights of the individual against the undue taking of his liberty by the state can merit no less consideration.

The use of national standards of justice in this way also reflects the demands of the United States Supreme Court in Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003), and Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374 (2005).  In Wiggins, the Court said that national standards, including those promulgated by the American Bar Association (ABA), have for decades been referred to as “guides to determining what is reasonable” in assessing ineffective assistance of counsel claims.  National standards define competency not only in the sense of the attorney’s personal abilities and qualifications, but also in the systemic sense that the attorney practices in an environment where she is provided the time, resources, independence, supervision, and training to effectively carry out her charge to adequately represent her clients.  Rompilla echoes those sentiments, noting that the ABA Standards for Criminal Justice describe the obligations of defense counsel “in terms no one could misunderstand.”

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Standards for Defender Services

Quick Guide to National Standards for Indigent Defense

National standards for the provision of indigent defense representation provide the best yardstick for measuring the extent to which clients receive the representation guaranteed to them by the Sixth Amendment. (See Standards for the Delivery of Public Defense Services.) These national standards are generally of two types: (1) attorney performance standards, which set out the specifics of what each attorney should do in representing each client; and (2) systemic or structural standards, which establish the specifics of the defense system in which each attorney works. Here we have listed all of the pertinent standards, divided into these two categories. In some instances a single publication addresses both attorney performance and system; in those cases the publication is listed under both categories.

Performance Guidelines for Criminal Defense Representation

NLADA’s Performance Guidelines offer an excellent, comprehensive and worthwhile definition of what constitutes good solid trial lawyering.  They give realistic meaning to the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel and to the ultimate goal for all trial counsel: “zealous and quality representation.”

ABA Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System

Adopted in February 2002, the American Bar Association's Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System distill the existing voluminous ABA standards for public defense systems to their most basic elements, which officials and policymakers can readily review and apply.  In the words of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, the Ten Principles “constitute the fundamental criteria to be met for a public defense delivery system to deliver effective and efficient, high quality, ethical, conflict-free representation to accused persons who cannot afford to hire an attorney.”  Our nation’s chief law enforcement officer, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, has called the ABA Ten Principles the “building blocks” of a functioning public defense system.

Explaining & Applying the Standards

The Nexus between Independence and Workload Controls

An adequate public defense program must have binding workload standards for the system to function.  In fact, if there were a single criterion by which it was possible to evaluate the overall health of a jurisdiction’s public defense system, the existence and enforcement of strict workload controls might well be the most important benchmark of an effective system.  This is because public defenders do not generate their own work.

Indigent Defense Standards Help Defense Attorneys to Provide Effective Assistance -- Mike's Story

Excerpt adapted from: David Carroll and Scott Wallace, Implementation and Impact of Indigent Defense Standards (December 2003), Award No. 1999-IJ-CX-0049, National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, United States Department of Justice.

One spring night in 2001, an unidentified caller dialed 911 and hung up before words were exchanged.  The police were routinely dispatched to the apartment where the call originated.  They were greeted at the door by Mike (not his real name).  Mike appeared nervous, having used methamphetamines an hour earlier.  The police asked permission to enter to ensure that no actual emergency was in progress, and Mike consented.  The officers saw drugs in plain view.  Mike and an acquaintance Mary (not her real name) who was also present were arrested and charged with felonies.

Protecting the Innocent -- Eddie Joe Lloyd

In 1985, Eddie Joe Lloyd was convicted in Detroit of the rape and murder of a teen-age girl. The evidence of his guilt was overwhelming.  Eddie Joe Lloyd’s written confession gave specific information about the crime scene that only the perpetrator could have known.  Police had him on tape admitting to the brutal acts.  It was a slam dunk case.  The jury took less than an hour to convict him of 1st degree felony murder.  Lamenting the lack of the death penalty in Michigan, the judge sent Eddie Joe to a maximum security prison for the remainder of his life without the possibility of parole.  Justice was served… except for one small problem – Eddie Joe Lloyd was innocent.