Public defender

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A public defender is a lawyer appointed to represent people who cannot afford to hire an attorney. It is also a literal translation of the Spanish-language term abogado de oficio, which usually refers to an ombudsman office; it is also the English-language title of the Jamaican ombudsman.

Brazil is the only country where an office of government-paid lawyers, with the specific purpose of providing legal assistance and representation to the destitute, free of charge, is established in the Constitution. In the United States, a 1963 US Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright ruled that the Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights requires the government to provide free legal counsel to indigent defendants in criminal cases.[1] Many other countries provide people with public defenders.

By country

In civil law countries, following the model from the French Napoleonic Code of criminal procedure, the courts typically appoint private attorneys at the expense of the state.


The Constitution of Brazil uniquely provides for a public defender's office (Defensoria Pública) at both state and federal levels.[2][3] Public defense is a right to poor people, who must declare, formally, that they cannot afford regular legal aid, to benefit from public defenders' services.[3]

Public Defenders, like Prosecutors and Judges, are admitted to their positions through civil service examination. The public defender's office assists the poor and lower middle-class in both civil and criminal matters, although the poorest states in the country are still struggling to set up a state public defenders office.[4][5]

Public defense in Brazil dates back to 1897, when a decree mandated government-funded legal assistance in the state of Rio de Janeiro, then called Legal Assistance (Assistência Jurídica). The Constitution of 1937 extended Assistência Jurídica to the entire country, but without the same effectiveness that is derived from the current, 1988 Constitution.[6]


Singapore does not provide legal assistance in criminal cases unless the accused faces the death penalty.[7] The government provides legal representation and advice in cases such as divorce, child custody, adoption, wrongful dismissal, letters of administration/probate, tenancy disputes, claims in contract and tort, through the Ministry of Law's Legal Aid Bureau (LAB).[8] Assistance from the LAB is not free, and most clients are required to contribute towards the costs of the work done, but the amount a client is charged depends on a number of factors, among them the client's financial means.[9]


Germany provides legal representation, legal advice, and help in covering court costs in civil cases to those who cannot raise the necessary funds to hire an attorney, but only when there is a reasonable chance of success.[10] In criminal cases where the defendant faces at least one year of imprisonment, the defendant has the right to legal counsel.[11] Although there is a right to legal defense, there is no organized public defender system. Instead, any lawyer can be appointed to provide counsel to a specific defendant, and the defendant can select a specific lawyer. Questions of payment are deferred until the end of a trial, and the court will decide the cost of the case to the losing party. The defendant will not be charged for legal services if acquitted. If convicted, the defendant will be required to pay the lawyer's expenses unless the court finds that the defendant is indigent.[12]

United Kingdom

There are a small number of Public Defender Service offices in England & Wales with lawyers employed directly by the Legal Aid Agency to provide advice in police stations and representation in magistrates and crown courts. The majority of state funded criminal defence work, however, is provided by private lawyers contracted to the Legal Aid Agency and paid by the case under the legal aid scheme.

In Scotland a wider network of Public Defender Solicitor Office lawyers employed by the Scottish Legal Aid Board are available to represent those accused of crimes in addition to private lawyers paid under the legal aid scheme.

United States

In the United States, a public defender is a lawyer appointed to represent people who cannot afford to hire an attorney. The 1963 US Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright held that the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel provision requires the government to provide legal counsel to indigent defendants in criminal cases.[1] Different jurisdictions, however, use different approaches in providing legal counsel for criminal defendants who can't afford private attorneys. Under the federal system and some states is through a publicly funded public defender office.


In Hungary, the police, the public prosecutor or the court (depending on what individual cases require) appoints a criminal defender at the state's cost to defend those who can not afford a chosen lawyer. The defence counsel's participation is required by the Criminal Procedure Act. Usually a private lawyer is appointed, one for each defendant, and conflict of interest between contradicting suspects is avoided, e.g. the same lawyer may not represent two accused whose evidence is mutually contradictory. If convicted, the defendant is in principle liable for the fee, but is rarely pursued.[citation needed]


See also

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