Explainer: Your Public Defender Isn't Responding. Why?

Explainer: Your Public Defender Isn’t Responding. Why?

Approximately eight out of every ten people charged with a crime in state courts rely on a court-appointed, publicly funded attorney to represent them. This means that court-appointed private attorneys or public defenders are representing 80% of the people charged with crimes in the U.S. Despite the overwhelming reliance on them, public defenders are notoriously overworked and underpaid.

While it’s not particularly surprising that people don’t line up for jobs that overwork and underpay you, it is worth emphasizing that there simply are not enough public defenders to go around. In North Carolina, for example, a comprehensive study by the National Center for State Courts indicates that the Tar Heel State needs 73% more attorneys, 10% more administrative staff members and 223% more investigators.

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Image courtesy of Igor Kutyaev on Getty Images via iStock.

So, when people reach out to How to Justice with complaints about their public defender not responding to them, it’s not a surprise. Most of the time, the public defenders, even if they’re not responding, are doing their best. They’re representing hundreds of people in complicated cases with few resources, struggling to make it financially and have families and personal lives of their own.

But understanding your attorney’s inability to respond to you and accepting it are very different things. After all, you have the constitutional right to effective representation by an attorney. And if you and your attorney can’t communicate, your attorney can’t effectively represent you — even when they’re busy. If you reach this point in your attorney-client relationship, you have options and can use them.

How do you know if your public defender’s failure to respond to you has become a problem?

To determine whether your public defender’s failure to respond has become a problem, it’s important to start by remembering how overworked and underpaid they are. Public defenders have hundreds of cases on their caseloads. Literally. Yet we regularly hear complaints from people about their public defenders not responding to phone calls or emails in a few hours or even after a day or two. Be patient.

But if it’s been weeks or months since you’ve heard from your public defender, there might be a problem. One of the things you can do when you contact your public defender is make it clear if you need a time-sensitive response. If, for example, you have a court date or a trial coming up in 48 hours and you haven’t heard from them, make that clear. But if you have a few weeks, try to be patient.

Photo courtesy of Kerkez on iStock via Getty Images.

What can you do if your public defender isn’t responding enough to do a good job?

Even though it’s important to be patient, you also need to stand up for yourself. If you have a court date or a trial coming up and there are things your attorney needs to know to effectively represent you, contact them and make that clear. Leave messages, send emails and make sure you have a documented record of your efforts to contact your attorney and their inability to respond to you.

And, if worst comes to worst, don’t be afraid to raise the issue in court. While judges are usually hesitant to replace your attorney (often because replacing attorneys is used as a delay tactic), if you have a documented history of your public defender not responding to important messages and phone calls about key issues in your case, the judge will (or at least should) be willing to consider the issue.

The Takeaway:

Public defenders are busy. They’re overworked, underpaid and rarely if ever appreciated for the work they do. But they’re also not perfect. So, if your public defender isn’t responding to your messages or phone calls, you need to balance being patient with asserting your rights. You have a constitutional right to effective representation in every criminal case, which includes an attorney who responds.

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