The ABA Ten Principles – a compilation of national standards

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To help policymakers that may not be versed in constitutional law, the American Bar Association (ABA) promulgated the Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System (Ten Principles), which represents in the words of the ABA the “fundamental criteria necessary to design a system that provides effective, efficient, high quality, ethical, conflict-free legal representation for criminal defendants who are unable to afford an attorney.”

tenprinciples_coverThe use of standards in criminal justice is not an entirely new concept for government officials. After all, for many decades policymakers have ordered minimum safety standards in all proposals to build a brand new courthouse, a new state highway overpass, or even to redo the electrical wiring in one’s home. Our Constitution demands that the taking of an individual’s liberty is given the same level of concern and care. Our nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric Holder, called the ABA Ten Principles the “basic building blocks of a well-functioning public defense system.”

These ten simple tenets are a shorthand method by which to gauge whether or not the right to counsel delivery model is set up to allow attorneys to meet the constitutional threshold for adequacy. The Ten Principles seek to answer simple questions like: “Are attorneys appointed early enough in the process to have sufficient time to conduct necessary investigations?” or “Is the defense service provider free to zealously defend the client without concern for retaliation (i.e. termination of employment, reduction in pay, reduction in personnel, or reduction in defense resources)?” As such, the Principles are not a set of best practices to be aspired to, but rather, the minimum floor of effective representation itself.