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When do I have the right to an attorney?

Most people end up in court because they have to go, not because they want to be there; either they are being charged with a crime or they cannot resolve a dispute. When going to court, the assistance of a good lawyer makes a big difference.  Unfortunately, many people cannot afford to hire a lawyer.  In certain types of cases, you have the right to ask the court to “appoint” or assign a lawyer to represent you who you do not have to pay.


In criminal cases, you have a right to a lawyer whenever you might receive any amount of jail or prison time.  This generally means you have a right to a lawyer in every felony case and most misdemeanor cases, including traffic offenses, with the exception of minor misdemeanors.  You will not usually have a lawyer appointed until the first time you appear before the judge; but, you do not have to speak to police without a lawyer present.  You also generally have a right to a lawyer on your first appeal or at a hearing where you may be sent to jail for violating your probation or parole.


Both parents and children have the right to lawyers in juvenile court proceedings.  When a child is charged with committing a crime, he or she has a right to a lawyer.  When Children and Family Services removes or attempts to take custody of children, the parents have the right to a lawyer and the children may also have a right to their own lawyer (in addition to a guardian ad litem).


A parent who may go to jail for failing to pay child support has a right to counsel at the “show cause” or “contempt” hearing.   A parent is not, however, entitled to a lawyer when determining the amount of the child support payments.


In a few other circumstances—generally where your liberty is at stake, you also have a right to a lawyer.  If you are the subject of a guardianship, a civil commitment, or certain immigration proceedings (such as removal or asylum), you likely have a right to appointed counsel.

In most other civil cases, such as evictions or if you are sued by a creditor, you do not have a right to a court appointed lawyer.  You can hire a lawyer to represent you, or apply for free legal assistance through the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, which may be able to help in some cases.  Call 1-888-817-3777 to apply for assistance.



This article was written by Cuyahoga County Public Defender Cullen Sweeney and appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!

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