Criminal Justice Section  


Criminal Justice Magazine
Summer 2002
Volume 17 Issue 2

Indigent Defense

Terry Brooks and Shubhangi Deoras

ABA’s Principles of Public Defense

In February, the ABA House of Delegates approved a resolution sponsored by the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID) to adopt a set of principles—known as the "ABA Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System"—that constitute the fundamental criteria for the delivery of high-quality representation to persons accused of crime who cannot afford to hire an attorney. The resolution was cosponsored by the Criminal Justice Section, the Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division, the Steering Committee on the Unmet Legal Needs of Children, the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, and the Commission on Homelessness and Poverty. It recommends that jurisdictions use the 10 principles as a quick and easy way to assess the needs of public defense delivery systems and communicate those needs to policymakers who are responsible for funding and creating the systems.

The principles state that a public defense delivery system must contain the following elements in order to deliver effective, efficient, high quality, ethical, and conflict-free representation:

1. The public defense function, including the selection, funding, and payment of defense counsel, is independent.

2. Where the caseload is sufficiently high, the public defense delivery system consists of both a defender office and the active participation of the private bar.

3. Clients are screened for eligibility, and defense counsel is assigned and notified of appointment, as soon as feasible after clients’ arrest, detention, or request for counsel.

4. Defense counsel is provided sufficient time and a confidential space with which to meet with the client.

5. Defense counsel’s workload is controlled to permit the rendering of quality representation.

6. Defense counsel’s ability, training, and experience match the complexity of the case.

7. The same attorney continuously represents the client until completion of the case.

8. There is parity between the defense counsel and the prosecution with respect to resources and defense counsel is included as an equal partner in the justice system.

9. Defense counsel is provided with and required to attend continuing legal education.

10. Defense counsel is supervised and systematically reviewed for quality and efficiency according to nationally and locally adopted standards.

(American Bar Association Resolution 107 (adopted February 5, 2002).)

The full text of the resolution, including commentary to the principles and an accompanying report, is posted on the ABA website at

Since its adoption, the "ABA Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System" have figured prominently in efforts to improve indigent defense systems in several states:

Texas:In February 2002, copies of the policy statement were distributed at the inaugural meeting of the Texas State Task Force on Indigent Defense, a commission created by state legislation and charged with developing and enforcing uniform standards and guidelines for indigent defense systems in all 254 Texas counties.

Montana: On February 14, 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class-action lawsuit against the State of Montana and seven counties alleging that indigent defense services in those counties are constitutionally deficient. In its press release, the ACLU stated that Montana fails to meet national indigent defense standards, noting that Montana meets none of the criteria contained within the ABA’s policy statement.

Georgia:In March 2002, the Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Indigent Defense held an educational program devoted entirely to indigent defense standards and attributes of quality indigent defense systems, during which the "Ten Principles" served as an important point of discussion.

Michigan:On April 27, 2002, the Michigan State Bar voted to adopt the black letter of the "Ten Principles," as well as an eleventh principle to address: "When there is a defender office, one function of the office will be to explore and advocate for programs that improve the system and reduce recidivism."

According to Chair L. Jonathan Ross, SCLAID is gratified to know that the "ABA Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System" have played an important role in these state efforts to improve indigent defense. SCLAID would also like to express its appreciation for all of the support and assistance provided by the ABA entities that cosponsored the ABA resolution that established and adopted the policy statement. In particular, the Council for the Criminal Justice Section provided invaluable input in the drafting stages of the "Ten Principles." SCLAID hopes to continue its successful collaboration with the Section in the future to promote further necessary improvements in the provision of indigent defense services across the country.


Terry Brooks is staff counsel for the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense. Shubhangi Deora s is assistant committee counsel. Both are contributing editors to Criminal Justice magazine.

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