Defender Services for Arrested Defendants — US and UK Comparison

As part of the UK governing coalition’s attempt to cut the UK legal aid budget by 350 million pounds (about US$500 million), the possibility is being raised of introducing means testing of the provision of the currently universally available solicitors at the police station.   Here is the coverage in the Guardian.

The confirmation [of the possibility] drew a sharp response from Macdonald [Lord Ken Macdonald QC, a former director of public prosecutions]. “This is a critical part of the apparatus of protection that we have,” he said. “The presence of a lawyer doesn’t just protect the defendant from police, it protects the police from a defendant making up allegations about what happened, for instance during the course of an interrogation. I think the government should be very cautious about interfering in any way with the absolute right to representation in police stations. It’s there for a very good reason. When we didn’t have it ,we saw the consequences.”

For us in the US, of course, its a salutary reminder of just how limited our system generally is, even so long after Gideon.

What is less well known is that there are exceptions to the US general rule that people do not get a lawyer till their arrangement, unless they pay for him or her.

For exmple, Neighorhood Defender Services of Harlem (disclosure: I helped set it up in 1990) announces on its website:

Unlike most traditional public defender offices, NDS can begin representation before a client is arrested. Generally, court-appointed defense attorneys begin their work at arraignment, when a judge assigns an attorney to a criminal case. This occurs many hours, sometimes days, after a client is arrested. However, defense work done in the period between arrest and the first court appearance can have a tremendous impact on the outcome of a criminal case, and this systemic delay faced by indigent defendants puts them at great disadvantage. Early entry into a criminal case allows NDS attorneys to interview clients and witnesses earlier, begin investigations, negotiate with law enforcement, and take other preparations before the client goes to court for the first time. NDS can also arrange a client’s surrender to law enforcement, facilitating a safe interaction for both our clients and the police. Occasionally, NDS’s ability to enter into a case early results in the police not making an arrest.

Pre-Arrest Services are available upon request for qualified Harlem residents. Community residents are encouraged to call NDS at (212) 876-5500 as soon as they, or a family member or friend, are arrested, or if they believe that law enforcement contact is likely.

Does anyone know of any other such systems in the US?


Danielle Hirsch at the Chicago Bar Foundation points out that Chicago has a program called “First Defense Legal Aid”  Their website is here.

Here’s language from FDLA’s website about what they do:

First, FDLA provides a free, reliable, and experienced lawyer to individuals who are arrested in the city of Chicago. The FDLA attorney is available at the initial and most critical stage of the criminal justice process: from the time of arrest until the court system assigns a Public Defender. At the police station, the attorney helps the client understand and assert his or her rights, gathers information about arrest and detainment, documents evidence of police brutality, advocates for medical treatment, and informs the family and friends of the detainee throughout the process.

Second Update:

Massachusetts (where I also worked in the defender program) has an interesting system for pre-arraignment counsel in murder cases.  As a 2002 Memo from the then Chief Counsel of the statewide system, Bill Leahy, explains it;

[Massachusetts] General Laws chapter 21 ID, section 5, authorizes the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) to “establish a system for the provision of counsel in any prearraignment procedure.” Since March 1, 1985, CPCS has had in effect such a prearraignment assignment procedure, in murder cases only. Under this procedure, indigent persons whoa are arrested for murder and request counsel “will be provided counsel through our office immediately.” (Memorandum of then-CPCS Chief Counsel Arnold R. Rosenfeld to law enforcement authorities, March 7, 1985).

[Moreover, because of experienced and described inadequacies in the prior system,] [h]enceforth, a certified murder-case attorney will be assigned by the chief counsel to provide pre-arraignment representation to any indigent person who has been arrested for murder at a time when the arraignment court is closed. The attorney will appear at the place of confinement in order to meet the arrestee. The attorney’s first task will be to inquire as to indigency: if the arrestee has counsel, or is able to retain counsel, the attorney’s task is complete. If the arrestee appears to be indigent, the attorney will provide representation pursuant to my assignment until the arraignment, or until further action by CPCS or the court.

For further information on this system, contact Nancy Bennett, Esq., Deputy Chief Counsel, Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services,

Thanks, what a great programs — any more out there.  Maybe its a movement!


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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