Can you fire your Public Defender or Court-Appointed Attorney?

If you have been charged with a crime that may result in incarceration and you cannot afford an attorney, the court will offer you legal representation.  Depending on the jurisdiction, a public defender or court-appointed attorney will be assigned to represent you.  Whether a public defender (a paid government lawyer who represents indigent defendants) or a court-appointed attorney (a private practice lawyer hired by the court to represent indigent defendants on an ad hoc basis), both are licensed practitioners in your state.  Regardless of the type of advocate appointed, the attorney will act as your legal counsel.  But what happens if your attorney-client relationship fails or you feel your legal representation is inadequate or ineffective?

Generally speaking, you cannot simply fire your court-appointed counsel.  Only the trial court can dismiss or replace your attorney upon request.  Your right to representation is not absolute; the trial court can reject the request, or grant the request but not offer substitute counsel.  Under what circumstances should you seek new counsel, and when is a judge most likely to grant dismissal or substitution of a court-appointed attorney?

First, list your reasons for seeking dismissal of your attorney.  In order to grant a removal or replacement of counsel, the judge will expect to see some evidence of inadequate representation or advocacy.  Is the attorney communicating with you, seeking your active participation in building a defense, collecting evidence, and apprising you of hearing dates and deadlines? Or compelling you to enter a plea you reject? If you believe your defense is being compromised  and your case will be negatively impacted by these concerns, you should seek removal of counsel.

Before requesting removal or dismissal, however, it would be wise to discuss your concerns with the appointed attorney. Your differences may be based upon personality or communication issues, not substantive tactical concerns.  An attempt to resolve your issues before seeking removal or substitution by the court will be viewed favorably by the trial judge and your assigned counsel.

Another option is to ask the lawyer to request removal from your case.  If your lawyer agrees that the attorney-client relationship is irrevocably broken, the judge will likely honor the request for withdrawal, and appoint another attorney.

If you cannot resolve the differences with appointed counsel, notify the court in writing that you are seeking to remove the attorney from your case. Outline your reasons for removal based upon perceived inadequacy of defense, not your animosity toward the lawyer.  Since your legal representation is funded at public expense, you cannot “fire” your attorney at will, as you might a privately retained lawyer.  You must show good reason to remove a court-appointed advocate.  Be sure to ask the court to assign new counsel for you.

Timing is a critical factor if you hope to replace your court-appointed attorney.  As soon as you determine that you cannot work with the  assigned counsel, begin the process of requesting removal.  Many courts grant only one dismissal or substitution of counsel to avoid unnecessary trial delay.

To find information about legal services for indigents and public defenders in your area, select the Legal Aid and Lawyer Referral category for your state and county on CourtReference.

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