What Is A Conflict Defender?

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Few people have ever heard the term “conflict defender” and fewer still could guess what it means. But it can be an important term for some criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer.

Last month we discussed Public Defenders, who provide criminal defense services to indigent defendants. Anyone facing possible loss of liberty is entitled to a free court-appointed lawyer if he or she can’t afford to hire one. A Public Defender’s Office is often the source of the court-appointed lawyer. However, the Public Defender’s Office may not be able to take the case if it presents a conflict of interest.

The most common such conflict in criminal law occurs when multiple defendants have different stories about which one committed the crime. For example, let’s say John Doe and Joe Smith are accused of holding up a bank. John Doe says he didn’t do it, and wasn’t even there. Joe Smith says they both did it, is pleading guilty, and will testify against John Smith in return for a lesser sentence. Just as it would be an obvious conflict of interest for one law firm to represent both clients, it’s also a conflict of interest for the same Public Defender’s Office to represent both.

Normally when such a conflict arises in a criminal case, the court will appoint a private-practice criminal lawyer – one who does not work for the Public Defender’s Office – to represent one of the defendants, while the Public Defender’s Office represents the other. However, in some busy jurisdictions, a formal organization is set up to take the place of appointed counsel. Since this specialized office takes cases that would be a conflict of interest for the Public Defender’s Office, it’s called the Conflict Defender’s Office.

Although Conflict Defender is the most common name for such an office, it may be known by other names, even within the same state. In New York’s Chemung County, the office is called Public Advocate; in Monroe and St. Lawrence Counties it’s called Conflict Defender.

In California, Solano County has a Conflict Defender, while in Los Angeles and San Diego Counties the office is called Alternate Public Defender. Washoe County, NV also has an Alternate Public Defender.

Conflict Defender offices are also found in Georgia, in Fulton  County (where the organization is a non-profit corporation rather than a government agency) and in the Atlantic Judicial Circuit. The Atlantic Circuit Public Defender’s Office describes not only the Conflict Defender’s Office, but also the procedure for assignment to a private attorney when even the Conflict Defender’s Office has a conflict (e.g., three defendants accusing each other).

To see if your jurisdiction has a Conflict Defender, Alternate Public Defender, or Public Advocate, simply check CourtReference’s Legal Aid and Lawyer Referral resource category for your state.

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