25 Sep 23

Can I get the court to pay for my lawyer?

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Last Updated on: 26th September 2023, 03:56 am

Facing criminal charges but can’t afford a lawyer? The good news is you can request that the court appoint one for free. Here’s how it works in New York City.

Constitutional Right to Counsel

The 6th Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to an attorney, even if they can’t pay for one. Otherwise, it would be nearly impossible to mount an effective defense.

To protect this right, courts must provide attorneys to low-income defendants through public defender programs and appointed private lawyers.

Qualifying for a Court-Appointed Lawyer

To have the court assign free counsel, you’ll need to prove you are financially unable to hire your own attorney. Factors considered include:

  • Income and assets
  • Monthly expenses
  • Debts and liabilities
  • Cost of hiring private counsel
  • Family size

There are no strict income cutoffs. Eligibility is based on need relative to the seriousness of your charges and cost of paid attorneys.

Requesting Counsel at Arraignment

The first step is requesting a court-appointed lawyer at your arraignment or initial appearance. When asked to enter a plea, say:

“Your honor, I wish to request an attorney be appointed to represent me because I cannot afford to hire one.”

The judge may ask you questions about your financial situation before approving the request.

Filling Out Financial Affidavit

After requesting counsel, you’ll complete an affidavit of indigence spelling out your financial circumstances. Be prepared to provide documentation like:

  • Pay stubs
  • Bank statements
  • Tax returns
  • Bills and debts
  • Public assistance records

Supplying evidence is crucial to qualifying for court-appointed representation based on need.

Being Assigned an Attorney

Once approved, the court will appoint either:

  • A public defender from the Legal Aid Society, or
  • A private defense lawyer

Public defenders directly work for Legal Aid. Appointed private attorneys are chosen by the court from an approved list and paid an hourly government rate.

Paying Some of the Costs

Even if you’re approved for free counsel, you may have to contribute toward the costs if you can afford to pay a portion. This depends on your specific financial circumstances.

For example, you may need to pay an upfront retainer fee or reimburse part of the attorney fees after the case concludes.

When You May Be Denied

The court can deny the request for court-appointed counsel if:

  • Your income exceeds eligibility limits
  • You have sufficient assets to afford a lawyer
  • You fail to complete the financial affidavit
  • You miss the arraignment and fail to request counsel

If denied, immediately start researching affordable defense lawyers you can hire.

How the Attorney Gets Paid

Court-appointed attorneys submit billing statements to the government for payment. Rates are set by the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services.

For example, appointed private lawyers in New York City currently get $75 per hour for misdemeanors and $100 per hour for felonies.

Changing Appointed Counsel

If you’re unhappy with your court-appointed lawyer, you can file a motion to request a new attorney. But the judge must find good cause, like incompetence or lack of preparation.

You can’t change just because you disagree over strategy. Personality conflicts also won’t suffice.

When Counsel Can Withdraw

In some cases, your appointed lawyer may ask the court to withdraw from your case by showing:

  • A conflict of interest
  • An unresolvable ethical issue
  • Failure to pay agreed costs
  • Ongoing threats or abuse by client

If the attorney withdraws, the court will appoint a replacement lawyer to take over the defense.

Using an Appointed Lawyer Sparingly

While every defendant has a right to counsel, unnecessary requests burden the system. Seek appointed representation only for serious criminal cases that could result in jail time or stiff penalties.

For minor traffic tickets or low-level ordinance violations, hiring an affordable lawyer or representing yourself may suffice.


Court-appointed attorneys ensure fair trials and protect rights. If you truly can’t afford to hire a criminal defense lawyer in New York City, follow the proper steps to request free legal counsel.


[1] Assigned Counsel Eligibility – New York City Bar

[2] Requesting a Court-Appointed Attorney in New York – NY CourtHelp

[3] Withdrawing as Court-Appointed Counsel – NY Courts

[4] Pay Rates for Court-Appointed Lawyers in NY – OILS

[5] NYC Criminal Courts and Public Defenders –