Child in Trouble: Public Defender or Private Attorney?

Updated on February 8, 2018
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The daughter of an attorney, wife, mother of a teenage son and small business owner who's experienced the law in many different facets.

Your Child Is In Trouble, What Now?

Blessed are they who live long and without legal distress. Having a child in trouble with the law is among the most stressful events for a parent to have to endure. Each decision you face comes with potential consequence. Which is why it's imperative to be educated about your options and time is of the essence. Information is crucial.

Among the first of many decisions you'll be faced with, is legal representation. Every American is entitled to legal representation regardless of their ability to pay, children included. If you can't afford an attorney, the court will appoint an attorney to your child, known as a public defender. But, is it in your child's best interest? Should you try to afford a private attorney? Like most decisions, parents in this situation are faced with, the answer isn't easy. Here are some differences between a public defender and a private attorney, that are important to consider before making a decision of this magnitude.

Public Defender - What You Need To Know

A public defender is an attorney appointed to the defendant by the court, at no cost. Many people find themselves in a position, due to financial hardship, where a public defender is their only viable option. Only later to wish they had found a way to afford a private attorney.

Public defenders are few and their territories to defend are large. Many of them are grossly overloaded with cases. Many of them lack ample time to prepare a quality defense. It's not for lack of compassion on the part of the attorney your child was appointed. Rather, there are only so many hours in a day. The larger your city or community, it is likely, the more overloaded the public defender. When your child is appointed legal counsel by the court, you are not afforded the luxury of interviewing attorneys or choosing who will defend your child. Your child gets who they get and you have no say in it whatsoever.

Once your child is appointed a public attorney, there is still the strong possibility that the attorney could change, more than once and without notice. Meaning that, you could show up to court and have a person you've never, met before defending your child. You likely won't know how much they know about your child's case and you may not even be able to speak with them before appearing before the judge. It all depends on their case load and how much time they have to spend on each child they are defending that day.

You should also consider, that you and your child may never meet your public defender anywhere other than at the courthouse, minutes before court. Some public defenders will communicate with you by phone or email in lieu of actually meeting with you. Others will not and will only meet with you before court. Obviously, this makes gathering information and evidence with which to defend your child rather hard to get. You may likely end up gathering evidence, typing timelines and statements. Then, delivering them to the public defender by email on behalf of your child. However, there may be no correspondence to confirm that it was received, helpful or even relevant. How readily available, easy to reach or attentive your child's attorney is will depend on how heavy their case load is and how much time they have to give your child's case.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect to consider about opting to utilize a public defender, is that the court appoints them to your child, not you. Meaning, when your child is in front of the judge and the attorney is consulting your child they may or may not consult with you, the parent. Depending on the public defender that is appointed to your child, you, the parent, may have very limited interaction with the attorney regardless of your attempts to communicate. It is possible that if your child's attorney changes you may never get to speak with the new attorney. Making it incredibly difficult to know what's happening with your child's case or be involved.

Private Attorney - What You Need To Know

Should you decline to have a public defender appointed by the court, it will be your responsibility to obtain a private attorney for your child.

The most obvious and burdensome responsibility associated with opting for a private attorney is the financial responsibility. It is not uncommon for lawyers to charge upwards of $200 an hour and charge in 15 minute increments for everything from faxing to research and court appearances. The billable hours can add up fast. It's also standard for private attorneys to charge a retainer fee up front. Many times the retainer is based on a review of your child's case, how many hours they expect to spend and calculate the fee based on a percentage there of. Depending on your child's specific case the retainer could be anywhere from several hundred dollars to thousands. However, you do have the luxury of interviewing as many attorneys as you need. Possibly, finding one more affordable than the others. Possibly, finding one willing to make payment arrangements.

Having the ability to choose your child's representation means you have the ability to find an attorney that suits you. One that will work with you, communicate with you and specialize in the specifics of your child's case. A private attorney, while they represent your child, they work for you. They are obligated to include you and consult with you. Giving you much more control and input into your child's defense. However, this also means that you are responsible for finding an attorney who can properly defend your child. One who is experienced in defending similar cases. The quality of the attorney you end up with ultimately depends upon how well you research attorneys and who you can afford to hire. Although, you do have the ability to fire an attorney who does not meet the needs of your child's case. You are free to find new counsel, unlike with a public defender.

Another aspect to consider about hiring a private attorney is that you eliminate the risk of having your attorney change without you knowing or meeting them. That's not to say your private attorney will never change, because they could. There's a whole host of reasons why your attorney might change, from private reasons to a change of position. Despite the reason, a hired attorney is obligated to notify you of any changes in representation, for any reason. Unlike with a pubic defender. Hiring an attorney is the best way to avoid showing up to court not knowing who might be defending your child that day.

Before Your Child's First Court Appearance

If you haven't already accepted a public defender or hired a private attorney, you will need to be prepared to make that decision at your child's first court appearance. Meaning, time is of the essence to prepare and educate yourself. Perhaps the most expedient avenue for researching your options is to pick up the phone and call local attorneys in your area. Many private attorneys offer free consultations, schedule a few. Even if you believe you'll be accepting a public defender. A consultation with a private attorney can be a treasure trove of information. The purpose of a consultation is to review the case, discuss options, identify likely future proceedings and possible defense scenarios. During a consultation, the attorney will consult with you about whether or not your child's case would benefit from a private attorney, in some cases it might not.

Once you have a consultation scheduled it is of the utmost importance to go prepared. Do not go empty handed. Among the items you should bring are:

1. Paper and pencil - take notes

2. Law enforcement documents (if any)

  • Police report
  • Arrest record
  • Campus officer report
  • Probation report

3. Witness statements

4. Your child's statement

5. Report cards

6. School discipline record

7. Letters of character reference from influential adults in your child's life

8. Any video pertinent to the charges against your child

Should you opt to have a public defender represent your child, the above items should be provided to them immediately or as soon as possible. Do not give originals to the public defender, submit copies.

As a parent, you will be your child's most important and influential advocate. Stay educated. Stay prepared.

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    © 2018 Dawn M


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