Fact Checked

How do I Switch Court-Appointed Attorneys?

Renee Booker
Renee Booker

Many legal systems throughout the world guarantee a defendant the right to be represented by legal counsel when charged with a crime. If a defendant is unable to afford to hire an attorney, there may be a system for assigning court-appointed attorneys to represent the defendant. If a defendant is not satisfied with the services provided by the court-appointed attorney, there may be an option to request the removal of the attorney, but generally only in extreme circumstances.

There are two basic systems for providing court-appointed attorneys for criminal defendants. The first was used in the United States for many years and continues to be used in other countries throughout the world. In that system, the court appoints a private attorney to represent the defendant and the court or state bears the cost of the representation. Due to the potential for abuse or bias in a system where the judge determines who the defendant's attorney will be, many judicial systems within the United States and in other countries such as Brazil have created separate agencies that employ full-time public defenders. In those systems, the defendant is appointed a public defender, but the agency itself decides which attorney will actually represent the defendant.

A courthouse.
A courthouse.

Regardless of which system is utilized, a defendant is generally not required to pay for the services of court-appointed attorneys. For this reason, the defendant rarely has the option to decide who will represent him or her. Once court-appointed attorneys are assigned to a case, the defendant must usually show the court extenuating circumstances that would justify the removal of the attorney.

Law books.
Law books.

Situations that might compel a court to switch court-appointed attorneys include a conflict of interest, a fundamental difference in opinion regarding the defense that is severe enough to hinder the attorney's ability to perform his or her duties, or action or inaction on the part of the attorney that would constitute a violation of the attorney disciplinary code of conduct. A conflict could exist if the attorney previously represented a co-defendant in the case or a victim in the case. Simple personality conflicts are usually not enough to remove a court-appointed attorney, but if the attorney and client are unable to work together to productively defend the case, then the court may consider appointing another attorney. Clearly, if the attorney has failed to do anything to defend the defendant or has done something that is a violation of the attorney code of conduct, then the defendant may request another attorney be appointed to represent him or her.

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Discussion Comments


@kentuckycat - I agree that it is usually best to have a personal attorney defend your case, but sometimes that isn't possible. The fact that public defenders don't give the best defense is less a problem with the lawyers and more a problem with the system.

Since the state has to pay for the attorneys, they try to fill up their schedules as much as possible, which leaves them with less time to prepare a solid defense. At the same time, a private lawyer has to worry more about their reputation and will spend more time on each case. It is in a public defender's best interest to get cases tried as soon as possible, but that isn't the case with a private defense attorney.

Public defenders tend to make less money than private lawyers, which may give them a little bit of a disincentive to perform well, but I don't think it is as bad as everyone makes it out to be.


@Izzy78 - To answer the other part of your question, courts typically don't allow you to switch out a public defense attorney because it is a big cost to the state. Even though public defenders may not give the best defense compared to a criminal attorney, they still may spend a lot of time preparing a case and trying to do their best.

Along those lines, I think it is almost always in someone's best interest to pay for legal aid if they can afford it. I feel like most public defenders don't have a lot of motivation to make sure their clients come away innocent. I have also heard of some people who said that their court-appointed attorney wouldn't even take the time to do some of the extra research that a regular lawyer would do.

I don't think whether or not someone can afford an attorney should determine what type of defense they get.


@Izzy78 - I am pretty sure that any time you want to replace a court-appointed lawyer with your own lawyer that it is not a problem. You either have the right to a court-appointed attorney or the attorney of your choice, so there is nothing the court can do to stop you there. They can just regulate you switching appointed attorneys. That being said, if you weren't satisfied with your defense and couldn't get the judge to let you switch lawyers, it still may be hard to hire a lawyer. I am pretty sure if the trial is in process it might cause problems, and most lawyers wouldn't want to take on a case under those circumstances anyway.

As far as what lawyer is assigned to each person, I think it just sort of goes in a rotation. Even though some people may be better at defending people in different circumstances, I don't think they make it a special point to give someone a specific lawyer.


What would happen if you had a court-appointed attorney but wanted to remove that person and have a private lawyer defend you in a case? Is that possible, or are you stuck with the same attorney once that person has been appointed to you?

The other thing I don't understand is why it would be a problem for someone do decide that they didn't like the lawyer they had been given and want someone else. If someone is going to trial for something, shouldn't they be able to decide what person they think will be able to give them the best defense?

Also, how does the court decide what lawyer is given to each person? Do they just go in a rotation, or are certain lawyers usually given to certain cases?

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