New "Client Choice" Program First in the United States

February 11, 2014

Comal County, Texas, will begin a new program in the fall allowing indigent defendants to choose their own lawyers, says San Antonio Express-News.

  • The Texas Indigent Defense Commission has awarded a $200,000 grant to Comal County to establish a two-year program that trains local lawyers seeking to defend indigent defendants.
  • The most notable aspect of the program is that it establishes a "client choice" system in which defendants can pick their own attorney from a list of approved lawyers.
  • Most courts, on the other hand, use a "wheel method" -- selecting lawyers at random from a rotating list.

The idea is that the program will improve quality of counsel for the indigent. The program intends to rely on word-of-mouth among defendants, and the county is expecting it to bring some efficiency to the court system. County Judge Sherman Krause said of the initiative, "Just by free-market practices, it weeds out the attorneys who aren't doing such a good job. The good ones are more efficient at what they're doing, and should spend less time on the defense." This year, the county allocated $430,000 toward public defenders in state district courts and $125,000 for county courts.

  • Jurisdictions overseas -- including in the United Kingdom and New Zealand -- have used similar programs, but Comal County's project is the first to take place in the United States.
  • The idea came from a 2010 Cato Institute paper, which advocated for free market approaches to indigent defense.

District Attorney Jennifer Tharp has said she looks forward to the use of the program. Defendants, she said, often wrongly accuse her of choosing their attorneys. Establishing the choice program and allowing the defendant to pick his own lawyer would bring more trust into the system, she said.

Indigents who choose not to pick their own attorney will be randomly assigned one.

Source: Zeke MacCormack, "Comal County to Host National Test of 'Client Choice'," San Antonio Express-News, January 25, 2014.

 

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