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The Right to Counsel for all Indigent Defendants

The Right to Counsel for all Indigent Defendants

The right to an attorney is a right that is guaranteed under the Constitution. However, there are many defendants who cannot afford an attorney and, in such a case, are disadvantaged. The requirement that such defendants be provided counsel by the state is engraved in the laws of the United States (US). The requirement that all indigent defendants have a right to counsel was recognized in the case of Gideon v Wainwright, 372 US 335 (1963). In this case, the Court held that the Constitution of the United States guaranteed the right to a lawyer to all indigent criminal defendants at the expense of the state (Dick, 2015). The effect of the decision is the fact that a defendant who cannot afford to hire a lawyer must be assigned one by the state.

Whether or not the courts are considered to have gone too far or not too far in requiring the state to provide counsel to all indigent defendants depends on the circumstances of every case. The reasoning of the Court in Gideon v Wainwright was that since the government had invested in systems and machinery to try defendants, such defendants cannot be assured of a fair trial unless they have legal representation. The Court acknowledged that the right to counsel is fundamental to ensuring a fair trial for defendants in the US (Mandel, 2009). The requirement is not excessive in that it does not require the government to provide counsel to all defendants but rather to only those that cannot afford a private counsel for the purpose of promoting justice.

Although the Court set out the requirement, it did not set out the mode of funding the indigent defense system. This means that the state was given the discretion to make policies to effectuate the requirement. This has led to the challenge of under-funding of the public defender offices. It has, therefore, become difficult to ensure defendants of a fair trial even when a public defender is assigned due to the shortage of funds. As a result, the court did not go too far in requiring the state to provide indigent defendants with counsel and neither can it be considered not to have gone far enough. While the court played its part in defining the law, the state must be willing to apply the law by providing the required funds.


Dick, W. (2015). The right to appointed counsel for indigent civil litigants: The demands of due process. William and Mary Law Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, 627-666.

Mandel, R. (2009). The appointment of counsel to indigent defendants is not enough: Budget cuts render the right to counsel virtually meaningless. The Florida Bar Journal, Vol. 83, No. 4, 43.