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.
The ABA Ten Principles are a set of standards that are interdependent. That is, the health of an indigent defense system cannot be assessed simply by rating a jurisdiction’s compliance with each of the ten criteria and dividing the sum to get an average “score.” For example, just because a jurisdiction has a place set aside in the courthouse for confidential attorney/client discussions does not make the delivery of indigent defense services any better from a client’s perspective if the appointment of counsel comes so late in the process, or if the attorney has too many cases, or if the attorney lacks the training, as to render those conversations ineffective at serving a client’s individualized needs. Instead, for a public defense system to be found capable of providing effective assistance of counsel, that system must meet all of the minimum standards described by the ABA Ten Principles.