The process for obtaining a court-appointed lawyer usually begins at the first court appearance when a judge asks the defendant if he has an attorney, Nolo says. If the defendant indicates he would like a court-appointed lawyer, some courts appoint one immediately. Some courts review the defendant's economic situation before approving a court-appointed lawyer.
States and counties have their own rules when it comes to court-appointed lawyers, Nolo explains. Generally, if the defendant is found to be indigent, and the defendant risks jail or prison time as part of his crime, the court is usually required free representation.
If a defendant does not qualify for free representation but he can't afford the cost of retaining a lawyer, some states have partial indigent qualifications, Nolo says. This means that when a case has concluded, the judge requires the defendant to reimburse the county or state for a portion of the attorneys fees for representation.
A court-appointed lawyer works with defendants in the same manner that paid attorneys do, Lawyers.com explains. The lawyer protects his clients interests, conducts interview, gathers evidence and prepares the defendant for trial. The lawyer may also work with the prosecution on obtaining a plea negotiation, but the defendant can decide whether to accept the plea deal.