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Criminal Justice Standards

Providing Defense Services

In August 1990, the ABA House of Delegates approved these “black letter” standards that have been published with commentary in ABA Standards for Criminal Justice: Providing Defense Services, 3d ed., © 1992 American Bar Association. For the text of the publication, click HERE . To go directly to individual “black letter” standards (without commentary), see below.

Copyright by the American Bar Association. This work (Criminal Justice Standards) may be used for non-profit educational and training purposes and legal reform (legislative, judicial, and executive) without written permission but with a citation to this source.  Some specific Standards can be purchased in book format.


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Standard 5- 1.1 Objective

The objective in providing counsel should be to assure that quality legal representation is afforded to all persons eligible for counsel pursuant to this chapter. The bar should educate the public to the importance of this objective.

Standard 5- 1.2 Systems for legal representation

(a) The legal representation plan for each jurisdiction should provide for the services of a full-time defender organization when population and caseload are sufficient to support such an organization. Multi-jurisdictional organizations may be appropriate in rural areas.

(b) Every system should include the active and substantial participation of the private bar. That participation should be through a coordinated assigned-counsel system and may also include contracts for services. No program should be precluded from representing clients in any particular type or category of case.

(b) Conditions may make it preferable to create a statewide system of defense.

(b) Where capital punishment is permitted in the jurisdiction, the plan should take into account the unique and time-consuming demands of appointed representation in capital cases. The plan should comply with the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Counsel in Death Penalty Cases.

Standard 5- 1.3 Professional independence

(a) The legal representation plan for a jurisdiction should be designed to guarantee the integrity of the relationship between lawyer and client. The plan and the lawyers serving under it should be free from political influence and should be subject to judicial supervision only in the same manner and to the same extent as are lawyers in private practice. The selection of lawyers for specific cases should not be made by the judiciary or elected officials, but should be arranged for by the administrators of the defender, assigned-counsel and contract-for-service programs.

(b) An effective means of securing professional independence for defender organizations is to place responsibility for governance in a board of trustees. Assigned-counsel and contract-for-service components of defender systems should be governed by such a board. Provisions for size and manner of selection of boards of trustees should assure their independence. Boards of trustees should not include prosecutors or judges. The primary function of boards of trustees is to support and protect the independence of the defense services program. Boards of trustees should have the power to establish general policy for the operation of defender, assigned-counsel and contract-for-service programs consistent with these standards and in keeping with the standards of professional conduct. Boards of trustees should be precluded from interfering in the conduct of particular cases. A majority of the trustees on boards should be members of the bar admitted to practice in the jurisdiction

Standard 5- 1.4 Supporting services

The legal representation plan should provide for investigatory, expert, and other services necessary to quality legal representation. These should include not only those services and facilities needed for an effective defense at trial but also those that are required for effective defense participation in every phase of the process. In addition, supporting services necessary for providing quality legal representation should be available to the clients of retained counsel who are financially unable to afford necessary supporting services.

Standard 5- 1.5 Training and professional development

The legal representation plan should provide for the effective training, professional development and continuing education of all counsel and staff involved in providing defense services. Continuing education programs should be available, and public funds should be provided to enable all counsel and staff to attend such programs.

Standard 5- 1.6 Funding

Government has the responsibility to fund the full cost of quality legal representation for all eligible persons, as defined in standard 5-7.1. It is the responsibility of the organized bar to be vigilant in supporting the provision of such funding. The level of government that funds defender organizations, assigned-counsel programs or contracts for services depends upon which level will best insure the provision of independent, quality legal representation. Under no circumstances should the funding power interfere with or retaliate against professional judgments made in the proper performance of defense services.


Standard 5- Standard 5-2.1 Systematic Assignment

The plan for legal representation should include substantial participation by assigned counsel. That participation should include a systematic and publicized method of distributing assignments. Except where there is a need for an immediate assignment for temporary representation, assignments should not be made to lawyers merely because they happen to be present in court at the time the assignment is made. A lawyer should never be assigned for reasons personal to the person making assignments. Administration of the assigned-counsel program should be by a competent staff able to advise and assist the private attorneys who provide defense services.

Standard 5- 2.2 Eligibility to Serve

Assignments should be distributed as widely as possible among the qualified members of the bar. Lawyers licensed to practice law in the jurisdiction, experienced and active in trial practice, and familiar with the practice and procedure of the criminal courts should be encouraged to submit their names for inclusion on the roster of attorneys from which assignments are made. Each jurisdiction should adopt specific qualification standards for attorney eligibility, and the private bar should be encouraged to become qualified pursuant to such standards. Counsel should not seek to avoid appointment by a tribunal to represent a person except for good cause.

Standard 5- 2.3 Rotation of assignments and revision of roster

(a) As nearly as possible, assignments should be made in an orderly way to avoid patronage and its appearance, and to assure fair distribution of assignments among all whose names appear on the roster of eligible lawyers. Ordinarily, assignments should be made in the sequence that the names appear on the roster of eligible lawyers. Where the nature of the charges or other circumstances require, a lawyer may be selected because of his or her special qualifications to serve in the case, without regard to the established sequence.

(b) The roster of lawyers should periodically be revised to remove those who have not provided quality legal representation or who have refused to accept appointments on enough occasions to evidence lack of interest. Specific criteria for removal should be adopted in conjunction with qualification standards.

Standard 5- 2.4 Compensation and expenses

Assigned counsel should receive prompt compensation at a reasonable hourly rate and should be reimbursed for their reasonable out-of-pocket expenses. Assigned counsel should be compensated for all hours necessary to provide quality legal representation. Compensation for assigned counsel should be approved by administrators of assigned-counsel programs.


Standard 5- 3.1 Use of contracts for services

Contracts for services of defense counsel may be a component of the legal representation plan. Such contracts should ensure quality legal representation. The contracting authority should not award a contract primarily on the basis of cost.

Standard 5- 3.2 Contracting parties and procedures

(a) The contracting authority and each contractor should be identified in the contract. Procedures for the award of contracts should be published by the contracting authority substantially in advance of the scheduled date of award.

(b) The contracting authority should ensure the professional independence of the contractor by means of a board of trustees, as provided in standard 5-1.3.

(c) The contracting parties should avoid provisions that create conflicts of interest between the contractor and clients.

Standard 5- 3.3 Elements of the contract for services

(a) Contracts should include provisions which ensure quality legal representation and fully describe the rights and duties of the parties, including the compensation of the contractor.

(b) Contracts for services should include, but not be limited to, the following subjects:

(i) the categories of cases in which the contractor is to provide services;

(ii) the term of the contract and the responsibility of the contractor for completion of cases undertaken within the contract term;

(iii) the basis and method for determining eligibility of persons served by the contract, consistent with standard 5-7.1;

(iv) identification of attorneys who will perform legal representation under the contract and prohibition of substitution of counsel without prior approval;

(v) allowable workloads for individual attorneys, and measures to address excessive workloads, consistent with standard 5-5.3;

(vi) minimum levels of experience and specific qualification standards for contracting attorneys, including special provisions for complex matters such as capital cases;

(vii) a policy for conflict of interest cases and the provision of funds outside of the contract to compensate conflict counsel for fees and expenses;

(viii) limitations on the practice of law outside of the contract by the contractor;

(ix) reasonable compensation levels and a designated method of payment;

(x) sufficient support services and reasonable expenses for investigative services, expert witnesses and other litigation expenses;

(xi) supervision, evaluation, training and professional development;

(xii) provision of or access to an appropriate library;

(xiii) protection of client confidences, attorney-client information and a work product related to contract cases;

(xiv) a system of case management and reporting;

(xv) the grounds for termination of the contract by the parties.


Standard 5- 4.1 Chief defender and staff

Selection of the chief defender and staff should be made on the basis of merit. Recruitment of attorneys should include special efforts to employ women and members of minority groups. The chief defender and staff should be compensated at the rate commensurate with their experience and skill sufficient to attract career personnel and comparable to that provided for their counterparts in prosecutorial offices. The chief defender should be appointed for a fixed term of years and be subject to renewal. Neither the chief defender nor staff should be removed except upon a showing of good cause. Selection of the chief defender and staff by judges should be prohibited.

Standard 5- 4.2 Restrictions on private practice

Defense organizations should be staffed with full-time attorneys. All such attorneys should be prohibited from engaging in the private practice of law.

Standard 5- 4.3 Facilities; library

Every defender office should be located in a place convenient to the courts and be furnished in a manner appropriate to the dignity of the legal profession. A library of sufficient size, considering the needs of the office and the accessibility of other libraries, and other necessary facilities and equipment should be provided.


Standard 5- 5.1 Criminal cases

Counsel should be provided in all proceedings for offenses punishable by death or incarceration, regardless of their denomination as felonies, misdemeanors, or otherwise. An offense is also deemed to be punishable by incarceration if the fact of conviction may be established in a subsequent proceeding, thereby subjecting the defendant to incarceration.

Standard 5- 5.2 Collateral proceedings

Counsel should be provided in all proceedings arising from or connected with the initiation of a criminal action against the accused, including but not limited to extradition, mental competency, postconviction relief, and probation and parole revocation, regardless of the designation of the tribunal in which they occur or classification of the proceedings as civil in nature.

Standard 5- 5.3 Workload

(a) Neither defender organizations, assigned counsel nor contractors for services should accept workloads that, by reason of their excessive size, interfere with the rendering of quality representation or lead to the breach of professional obligations. Special consideration should be given to the workload created by representation in capital cases.

(b) Whenever defender organizations, individual defenders, assigned counsel or contractors for services determine, in the exercise of their best professional judgment, that the acceptance of additional cases or continued representation in previously accepted cases will lead to the furnishing of representation lacking in quality or to the breach of professional obligations, the defender organization, individual defender, assigned counsel or contractor for services must take such steps as may be appropriate to reduce their pending or projected caseloads, including the refusal of further appointments. Courts should not require individuals or programs to accept caseloads that will lead to the furnishing of representation lacking in quality or to the breach of professional obligations.

Standard 5- 5.4 Impact litigation

(a) The legal representation plan should permit pursuit of litigation which affects:

(i) substantial numbers of similarly situated clients of the program, or

(ii) fundamental rights which cannot otherwise be effectively protected.

(b) Any such litigation should be undertaken only when it is in the best interests of the affected clients.


Standard 5- 6.1 Initial provision of counsel

Upon request, counsel should be provided to persons who have not been charged or taken into custody but who are in need of legal representation arising from criminal proceedings. Counsel should be provided to the accused as soon as feasible and, in any event, after custody begins, at appearance before a committing magistrate, or when formal charges are filed, whichever occurs earliest. In capital cases, two qualified trial attorneys should be assigned to represent the defendant. The authorities should promptly notify the defender, the contractor for services, or the official responsible for assigning counsel whenever the person in custody requests counsel or is without counsel.

Standard 5- 6.2 Duration of representation

Counsel should be provided at every stage of the proceedings, including sentencing, appeal, certiorari and postconviction review. In capital cases, counsel also should be provided in clemency proceedings. Counsel initially provided should continue to represent the defendant throughout the trial court proceedings and should preserve the defendant's right to appeal, if necessary.

Standard 5- 6.3 Removal

Representation of an accused establishes an inviolable attorney-client relationship. Removal of counsel from representation of an accused, therefore, should not occur over the objection of the attorney and the client.


Standard 5- 7.1 Eligibility; ability to pay partial costs

Counsel should be provided to persons who are financially unable to obtain adequate representation without substantial hardship. Counsel should not be denied because of a person's ability to pay part of the cost of representation, because friends or relatives have resources to retain counsel or because bond has been or can be posted.

Standard 5- -7.2 Reimbursement, notice and imposition of contribution

(a) Reimbursement of counsel or the organization or the governmental unit providing counsel should not be required, except on the ground of fraud in obtaining the determination of eligibility.

(b) Persons required to contribute to the costs of counsel should be informed, prior to an offer of counsel, of the obligation to make contribution.

(c) Contribution should not be imposed unless satisfactory procedural safeguards are provided.

Standard 5- 7.3 Determination of eligibility

Determination of eligibility should be made by defenders, contractors for services, assigned counsel, a neutral screening agency, or by the court. When the eligibility determination is not made by the court, confidentiality should be maintained, and the determinations should be subject to review by a court at the request of a person found to be ineligible. A questionnaire should be used to determine the nature and extent of the financial resources available for obtaining representation. If at any subsequent stage of the proceedings new information concerning eligibility becomes available, eligibility should be redetermined.


Standard 5- 8.1 Providing counsel to persons in custody

(a) A person taken into custody or otherwise deprived of liberty should immediately be informed, preferably by defense counsel, of the right to legal representation. An offer of counsel should be made in words easily understood, and it should be stated expressly that one who is unable to pay for representation is entitled to counsel.

(b) Custodial authorities should provide access to a telephone, the telephone number of the defender, assigned counsel or contract for services program, and any other means necessary to establish communication with a lawyer.

(c) The defender, assigned counsel or contract for services program should ensure that information on access to counsel is provided to persons in custody. An attorney or representative from the appropriate program should be available to respond promptly to a person in custody who requests the services of counsel.

Standard 5- 8.2 In-court waiver

(a) The accused's failure to request counsel or an announced intention to plead guilty should not of itself be construed to constitute a waiver of counsel in court. An accused should not be deemed to have waived the assistance of counsel until the entire process of offering counsel has been completed before a judge and a thorough inquiry into the accused's comprehension of the offer and capacity to make the choice intelligently and understandingly has been made. No waiver of counsel should occur unless the accused understands the right and knowingly and intelligently relinquishes it. No waiver should be found to have been made where it appears that the accused is unable to make an intelligent and understanding choice because of mental condition, age, education, experience, the nature or complexity of the case, or other factors. A waiver of counsel should not be accepted unless it is in writing and of record.

(b) If an accused in a proceeding involving the possibility of incarceration has not seen a lawyer and indicates an intention to waive the assistance of counsel, a lawyer should be provided before any in-court waiver is accepted. No waiver should be accepted unless the accused has at least once conferred with a lawyer. If a waiver is accepted, the offer should be renewed at each subsequent stage of the proceedings at which the accused appears without counsel.

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