right to counsel | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Procedural Law

The right to counsel is a constitutional guarantee that provides individuals accused of a crime with the right to legal representation.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a defendant’s right to counsel in all criminal prosecutions. This right is rooted in the English common law tradition, where it was recognized that a person facing a criminal charge needed the assistance of counsel to ensure a fair trial.

However, for many years in the U.S. legal system, the right was limited to those who could afford to hire an attorney. The state appointing attorneys for indigent defendants did not become widespread until much later.

It was not until the civil rights revolution brought on by the Warren Court during the 1960s and 1970s that the right to a lawyer for indigent defendants was applied to the states as a guarantee provided by the Federal Constitution.

The landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) played a crucial role in this development. Clarence Earl Gideon was an indigent defendant who was charged with breaking and entering a pool hall in Florida. When he requested an attorney, the trial judge denied his request, and Gideon was forced to represent himself in court. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

Gideon, who had only an eighth-grade education and no legal training, filed a handwritten petition with the Supreme Court of the United States arguing that his Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been violated. The Court agreed to hear the case and ultimately held that the Sixth Amendment requires that states appoint indigent defendants counsel in all felony cases.

This decision dramatically expanded the right and ensured that indigent defendants had access to legal representation. It also paved the way for other cases that would further define the right to counsel.

Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) was one such case. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that an indigent defendant had the right to appointed counsel whenever there was any risk of imprisonment, including misdemeanor charges. This decision significantly extended the right to counsel and ensured that even defendants facing minor charges would have access to legal representation.

Today, the right is a fundamental right in the U.S. legal system. It ensures that all defendants, regardless of their financial means, have access to legal representation and a fair trial. The right is particularly critical in criminal cases where the defendant’s liberty is at stake.

Moreover, the right to counsel has been extended beyond trial proceedings to include pretrial hearings, plea negotiations, and appeals. Courts have also interpreted the right to include the right to effective assistance of counsel, which requires that attorneys provide competent and diligent representation to their clients.

The Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to representation for criminal defendants was not initially applied to the states. However, through landmark cases such as Gideon v. Wainwright and Argersinger v. Hamlin, the Supreme Court extended the right to counsel to indigent defendants in felony and misdemeanor cases. Today, the right to counsel is a fundamental right that ensures access to legal representation and a fair trial for all defendants.

Learn More

On this Site

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 04/08/2023


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.