By: Jennifer Francisco, Articles Editor, J.D. Candidate, May 2020, St. Thomas University School of Law.

Over the years, indigent defenders have developed a belief that public defenders (“PD’s”) do not adequately represent their clients. This raises the question of where does this distrust arise from? Why are private defense attorneys found to be more trustworthy, despite both public defenders and privately obtained counsel having fulfilled the same basic requirements such as receiving training, having attended law school, passed the bar, etc. Scholars explain that this distrust arises from common beliefs among society that public defenders are 1) part of the same system trying to keep them in prison, 2) public defenders do not care or believe their client is guilty, and 3) they are incompetent due to the high amount of cases they are assigned.

One of the most common reasons clients lack trust in PD’s has to do with the belief that the part of the system bringing charges against them. Clients often look at PD’s as insiders of “the system”; someone who works for the system and does not believe in him. While defenders know that prosecutors work for the government and have an interest in putting them in prison, they are even more skeptical as to a PD’s intentions given that PD’s also work for the government and yet claim to be on their side. Scholars assert that “[t]his concern in specific arises in a courtroom, when a client see’s a PD trying to make a plea deal with the prosecutor,” which the client may take as an indication that the prosecutor and the PD are working together to send the individual to prison. It is important to remember that indigent defendants do not choose public defenders, and so they have little reason to trust the PD.  This causes defenders to question their attorneys interest, which affects adequate representation. A public defender’s duty to a client defers from the duty of a prosecutor. Public defender’s have the duty to zealously represent their clients within the bounds of the law. This duty differs from that of a prosecutor, whose duty is to seek justice.

Additionally, indigent defendants often hear about the inadequacies of court-appointed counsel, which results in PD’s being seen as inferior lawyers to privately retained counterparts. Moreover, one of these reasons for the distrust has to do with the number of cases public defenders are assigned. The American Bar Association guidelines explain that a public defender should not “handle more than 150 felonies or 400 misdemeanor cases in a year,” however PD’s are often given more cases than what the ABA states PD’s could handle. The key to gaining a client’s trust lies in the attorney’s ability “to develop and foster a good relationship with her client.” This is even more essential for public defenders than it is for privately retained counsel. PD’s must build relationships with their clients and show them that they are on their side and committed to putting in the time and effort to make an effective case.