National Standards

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In 1963, the United States Supreme Court declared the Sixth Amendment right to counsel “fundamental and essential to fair trials.” In the years since then, the Court has consistently held that this fundamental and essential right is due to every defendant in every case in which a defendant is facing incarceration as a potential penalty, including misdemeanors where jail time is actually imposed, misdemeanors with suspended sentences, felonies, and juvenile delinquency cases. The Constitution also requires that an attorney be present for an indigent defendant at every critical stage of their case and that the attorney must provide effective representation.

In a series of cases over the past decades, the Court has said plainly that the right to counsel is the right to an effective attorney. Supreme Court caselaw has further defined the minimum requirements under the Constitution for providing right to counsel services – the requirements of the attorney who represents the defendant, as well as the requirements of the indigent defense system that provides that attorney – in order to guarantee the individual defendant’s right to a fair hearing. Lawyers cannot be effective unless they work within indigent defense systems that ensure their independence, provide them with enough time and resources to fulfill their obligations to each of their clients, and provide ongoing training and impart supervision, among other systematic safeguards. But the high court has left to state governments the burden of determining how best to go about creating systems to provide effective counsel to poor people facing jail as a penalty.

This is where standards come in, so that policymakers do not have to continually “reinvent the wheel” as they seek to provide constitutionally effective services in the most cost efficient manner possible. The use of standards is hardly a new concept for government officials. After all, policymakers have long required that minimum safety standards be met in constructing a brand new courthouse or jail, purchasing a fleet of city buses, or erecting a new state highway overpass. Our Constitution demands that the taking of an individual’s liberty be given the same level of concern and care. And, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the measure of whether an attorney provides effective assistance of counsel is “reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.”

Over the many years of implementing the right to counsel for the poor in America’s courtrooms, national groups and federal commissions have promulgated a wealth of standards for the delivery of Sixth Amendment right to counsel services. Bit by bit, we will go through them all to ensure they are readily understandable and that you know how to apply them in your jurisdiction. If you don’t find the answer you are looking for here, please do not hesitate to contact one of our expert senior staff members. We are just getting started in explaining all of the standards that establish a firm foundation for meeting the demands of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait!