If you are facing jail for a criminal offense or for violation of a court order on child custody or support you have the right to a lawyer in North Carolina, regardless of whether you can afford to hire your own. Court appointed lawyers have their pros and cons, but generally speaking it makes sense to apply for one if you think you may be eligible. However, if you want a private lawyer you should contact one you trust, and not assume they are unaffordable before discussing your case with them. A serious criminal charge could be a turning point in your life that is too important to handle without fully exploring your options.

When do I get a court appointed lawyer?

Generally speaking a felony or serious misdemeanor will trigger your right to have a lawyer. If you have no criminal history and you are charged with a lower-level misdemeanor such as simple possession of marijuana, then you might not be eligible for a court appointed lawyer regardless of your ability to afford your own. If you are potentially eligible for a court appointed lawyer based on your offense, then you will be asked at your first court appearance whether you can afford a lawyer or whether you would like the court to appoint you a lawyer. If you request a court appointed lawyer, you will have to fill out a form called an Affidavit of Indigency. They will give you the form in court. You have to put your financial information on the form, and the judge will decide whether you make enough money to hire your own lawyer or not. You should apply for a court appointed lawyer unless you are sure you can afford to hire your own.

Does a court appointed lawyer cost anything?

Court appointed lawyers cost nothing up front. If you are found guilty or found in contempt of court at any point during your case, then you will have to reimburse the state for the lawyer’s services. The fees generally range from $55-75 per hour and can add up quickly. Failure to pay can result in a civil judgment against you for what you owe, plus interest. If you are found not guilty or if your case is dismissed, the court appointed lawyer will be free and you do not have to reimburse the state for anything.

Is a court appointed lawyer right for me?

The court appointed lawyers you might be assigned, if you are eligible, are either employees in the office of the county public defender, or they are private lawyers who have applied and/or volunteered to accept defense cases from the state and be paid by the state for those cases. Like any group of professionals, some exceed their clients’ expectations and some do not. On the plus side, many court appointed lawyers are very well known to the prosecutors and judges from handling so many cases. That is also one of the downsides: Court appointed lawyers cannot always devote as much time to your case as you might like, because they are sometimes overworked, underpaid, and have too many cases at one time. Another of the downsides of a court appointed lawyer is that you don’t get to choose which one. You might not like the lawyer assigned to you, or feel they have enough experience to handle your case. If you can find a way to afford your own lawyer, you always have the right to fire your court appointed lawyer and hire your own.

If I qualify for a court appointed lawyer, how can I hire my own if I want to?

Facing serious charges without the resources to hire your own trusted lawyer is scary, and because of the lifelong consequences a conviction might have for you, this is the time to call on friends and family for financial support. Most private lawyers have low upfront fees, payment plans, and different billing options that can make hiring a private lawyer possible even if you qualify for a court appointed lawyer and you think you cannot afford your own. You would do anything you can to afford necessary surgery, or prescription medication you or your loved ones need to stay healthy. Sometimes a serious criminal charge can pose a threat that is just as severe for your life and well being, as well as your loved ones who depend on you. You should never hesitate to contact a private lawyer you would like to hire, merely because you think you cannot afford it. This is too important to make assumptions and maybe miss out on the best defense you can get.

You may be entitled to a court appointed lawyer if you are facing jail time, and your income is low enough to qualify. That doesn’t mean it is impossible for you to afford a private lawyer you might like to hire instead. You should apply for a court appointed lawyer if you think you may be eligible. However, you should also consider whether a private lawyer would be better for your case, and consult with one you trust about their fees and what they would actually charge for your specific case.

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