A lot of people are unable to afford a public defender, so I was wondering if this is possible.

  • 7
    What country are you talking about? In the U.S. at least a "public defender" is provided at no cost specifically to defend individuals charged with a crime who can't afford a private representative.
    – feetwet
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 20:10
  • @feetwet I'm in the US but a friend of mine is inquiring and she is in Europe. Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 20:12
  • 1
    @feetwet ...its good to know that individuals in the U.S. who can't afford a private representative, is provided a public defender at no cost. Thank you for that information. Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 20:22
  • 2
    In the U.S., you've probably heard of people who are arrested being "read their rights," specifically referring to their Miranda Rights. Not only will the cost of a public defender be paid for by the government if you can't afford it, whoever arrests you must inform you of this fact or any information you give them can't be used in court against you. Of course, this only applies to the U.S. and other jurisdictions will be different.
    – reirab
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 5:17

8 Answers 8


The short answer to your question is: yes, but you shouldn't if you can possibly avoid it.

You didn't specify which jurisdiction's law you were curious about, so in some jurisdictions (especially civil law jurisdictions, such as continental Europe), the the answer may be different. But under the law as it exists in most U.S. jurisdictions, a natural person may act for himself or herself in most legal proceedings; this is known as appearing "pro se," for oneself. (Corporations may not appear pro se in U.S. courts.)

However, while the court will grant pro se litigants a lot of leeway, the pro se litigant is still bound by the same rules of law that bind an attorney. In practical terms, for anything more complex than small claims court, this means appearing pro se is a terrible idea.

Think of it this way. There's nothing stopping you from performing your own vasectomy at home, either--but you shouldn't be surprised if the results aren't as satisfactory as when someone does it who went to med school and studied anatomy.

The analogy works in another sense, too. I've seen many people bring or defend lawsuits pro se because every lawyer they went to refused to make the improper/false/nutty/frivolous arguments they wanted made. In other words: sometimes a lawyer's best contribution to your case is some much-needed perspective. That's one reason most lawyers would never dream of appearing pro se if their own necks were on the line.

  • 3
    As a side note: There are some instances where pro se litigants have won cases, including some very notable and high-impact cases. That doesn't mean it's normally a good idea, though.
    – cpast
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 19:57

The UK does have free lawyers for those who cannot afford an attorney. In fact, it is even more liberal than the US, including representation in civil cases for the most part as well (there are a few exceptions, like libel, and from what I've read, even that is changing).

Rather than the main source of free representation being called public defenders, they are referred to as Legal Aid, which is a government funded agency much like public defenders are in the United States.

Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union provides that legal aid will be made available to those who lack sufficient resources, in so far as such aid is necessary to ensure effective access to justice.

In the event legal aid is too busy to accept a new client, the court will appoint a solicitor from a list of private firms/practitioners that will act in the same capacity.

Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) guarantees the right to a fair trial in both civil and criminal proceedings. This has been interpreted as providing for a general requirement of some measure of “equality of arms” between the state and the individual or between the parties in the case, and the overall structure of the article, as well as the case law of the Court, stresses the vital connection between the right to legal assistance and the general interest in guaranteeing the right to a fair trial.

When faced with a criminal charge, the right to legal assistance is explicitly set out in Article 6 (3) (c). An entitlement to free legal aid in civil cases is available in cases where the absence of legal support would make any equality of arms impossible and would effectively deprive an applicant of access to the proceedings as such, for example, when a case can be filed to a court only if assisted by a lawyer in circumstances when an applicant cannot clearly afford one.

My guess is, if your friend was denied counsel under legal aid, she has too much income or to many assets to qualify, or she is involved in a case that does not qualify. That said, the right to counsel in in the UK is a right for the indigent in most types of cases (even civil) and is becoming more and more fundamental as imposed by findings of the European Court of Human Rights Jurisprudence.

Here is a link where you can at least begin to get some information.



In the United States, a public defender is a right guaranteed by the 6th Amendment in criminal prosecutions. The right to a public defender is not guaranteed in civil trials.

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense." - Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

  • You only have a right to a public defender if you can't afford a private criminal defense attorney.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 1:54

You should probably watch this video, to fully appraise yourself of the status of public defenders in the US legal system.

Theoretically you are guaranteed a public defender by the government for free, but in practice you can be charged. Different states use different methods to do that.

Also, public defenders are overloaded with work. They might not be able to give enough time to your case either because they are underfunded and cannot afford a staff or because they might not have an office to work from.

In some states you will have difficulty getting one.

Please watch the video mentioned above for more references and the method of research.

  • Funny video, of course. For those looking for material the only reference noted is the Brennan Center for Justice. For those looking for the hilarious summary start the video at 12:50.
    – feetwet
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 16:59
  • FWIW, studies have shown that while public defenders have much worse customer service, that their outcomes on the merits are just as good as those of paid criminal defense lawyers.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 2:05

"A lot of people are unable to afford a public defender[.]"

Your question is based upon a false premise. It is wrong by definition.

The only reason you are ever entitled to a public defender (a right limited to criminal cases and termination of parental rights cases), is when you cannot afford an attorney. It is impossible to be "unable to afford a public defender." You can only be too affluent to be eligible for a public defender.

If you can afford a criminal defense attorney but would rather not spend the money (perhaps because you think it would be futile to do so) you may represent yourself in court instead.

In cases other than criminal cases and termination of parental rights cases, e.g. evictions, child custody cases, divorce cases, collection lawsuits, property disputes, foreclosures, bankruptcies, immigration cases, etc. You do not have a right to attorney and must represent yourself if you can't afford to hire an attorney.

Someone who represents themselves is called a pro se party. In some kinds of cases, such as evictions, collection lawsuits, foreclosures, child custody cases and divorce cases, most defendants are pro se.

Usually, pro se parties make stupid mistakes related to technicalities in a lawsuit and are severely prejudiced as a result, but pro se parties don't always lose, particularly when the other party is also pro se.


I agree with @chapka's answer.

However, I would just ask you to re-consider the premise of your question:

[...] unable to afford a public defender [...]

Public defenders only work criminal cases. If you have been arrested and charged with a crime, you are entitled to have the court pay the fees of your attorney.

  • The question does have a false premise, but you are only entitled to a public defender if you cannot afford to hire a criminal defense attorney yourself.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 1:54

In civil court in the US, a pro-se litigant is a second-class citizen within the court, compared to the other side's attorney, who is considered an "officer of the court."

That basically means that anything coming out of THEIR mouth is considered true unless proven otherwise, and everything coming out of YOUR mouth is considered false unless proven otherwise.

So, it's not a good idea, if there is any other option.

  • There are many disadvantages faced by pro se litigants. Credibility is rarely one of them. Most pro se litigants get in trouble because they fail to follow court rules that they don't even know exist, not due to credibility issues. Still, you are correct that this is not a good idea if there is any other option.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 2:04

As an experienced pro se plaintiff with currently two cases pending review in the U.S. Supreme Court (see here and here), I strongly recommend litigating in pro per, provided that (1) one engages in a steep learning curve, (2) is diligent, and (3) is able to cope with the dishonorable acts that many judges and opposing counsels commit on a regular basis.

Judicial corruption is an unfortunate reality (example: Michigan courts), and I am sure that very few attorneys would have handled my cases with diligence and competence. Even if an attorney is honest and forthcoming, the fact that his law office handles several cases simultaneously tends to impair their ability to capture subtle aspects of one's own case. Moreover, I've seen attorneys lose cases because they make novice's mistakes (for example, by filing a lawsuit without doing the prerequisite exhaustion of administrative remedies).

If more people litigated in pro per, more cases would be decided on the merits than by influence trafficking, and there would be greater awareness about judges who are unfit for judicial office.

-- Edited to add references in response to ohwilleke's comment:

In re:

  • 3
    This is horrible advice. Self represented people almost always seriously screw up. Your distrust of the judicial system is misplaced paranoia.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 2:02
  • 1
    @ohwilleke: These are not "misplaced paranoia", but documented instances of unfitness (refs. above): Daniel P. Finley (P-65454) asked for an award of $1,500 alleging that I didn't serve papers on him. I disproved him by showing the USPS receipt with his signature on it. Carol Kuhnke (P-55348) often showed up at hearings being clueless about motions she decided, disavowed the 9th amendment under pretext that Michigan loves anybody who's powerful", and later on she was busted for illegal possession of narcotics. Judge Gorcyca jailed 3 kids because they refused to have lunch with their father. Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 10:05

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