Richmond Public Defender: Frequently Asked Questions

What do Public Defenders do?

Public defenders represent people accused of committing a crime who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.


Can the Public Defender’s Office help me with legal issues other than criminal cases, like child support?

The Public Defender’s Office does not represent anyone in any type of civil case, such as child support, landlord-tenant disputes, protective order hearings, divorces, or traffic infractions. We exclusively handle criminal matters that occur inside the city limits.


Who is eligible for a Public Defender?

If you cannot afford to hire an attorney for your criminal case, and there is the possibility of a jail sentence, you may qualify for a public defender. Qualification is based on your income, your family size, and any debts you may owe.


How do I get a Public Defender?

At your first court appearance, the judge will discuss whether or not you want to be represented by an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney but would like one, you can ask the judge to appoint a public defender for you. He or she will ask questions about your financial situation to determine if you qualify.


What is the difference between a public defender and a court-appointed attorney?

The Public Defender’s Office employs full-time attorneys to represent our clients. Although we represent the majority of the people in Richmond who receive court-appointed counsel, we cannot represent everyone. For example, if two or more people are charged with committing a crime together, our office can only represent one of them. If more than one defendant qualifies for court-appointed counsel, the Judge will usually appoint our office to represent one of them, and private attorneys to represent the others. These private attorneys are not public defenders, but they serve as court-appointed counsel.


Are Public Defenders licensed attorneys?

Yes. The Public Defender and all Assistant Public Defenders in Richmond are licensed attorneys who have graduated from law school and passed the Virginia bar exam.


Does my public defender work for the State?

No – public defenders work for their clients. The rules of ethics we must follow as lawyers require us to advocate for our clients, and only our clients, at all times, regardless of how we are paid. Public defenders in Richmond are technically state employees and do not work for the city or the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.


I received a summons. What do I do?

If you have received a summons, you have been charged with committing a crime. While this may not seem serious, you should not go to trial without an attorney. The law can be complicated, and neither the Commonwealth’s Attorney nor the Judge is required to explain to you all the laws important to your case. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, you should ask the judge at your first court appearance to see if you qualify for a public defender to represent you.


I missed my court date. What do I do?

If you miss a court appearance, the Judge usually issues a warrant for your arrest (also called a capias). If this happens and you have an attorney, you should contact him or her immediately for help. If you do not have an attorney, you should turn yourself in at your local precinct or at the city jail. You are more likely to get a bond from the Magistrate if you turn yourself in.


My attorney never answers the phone when I call. Why is that?

Attorneys can be hard to reach by phone because they are often away from their desks – in court, visiting clients at the jail, or in meetings. Both the General District Courts and the Circuit Court meet Monday through Friday from the morning until the early afternoon. If you are unable to reach your attorney by phone, you should leave a message for him or her about why you are calling. You can also write your attorney a letter, or ask him or her if there is a time that is best for you to call.


I am unhappy with my public defender or court-appointed attorney. Can I get another attorney?

The short answer is, usually not. If you are represented by the Public Defender’s Office, we want to do our best to address any concerns you may have about your attorney. You should first discuss the problem with your attorney — he or she may be able to fix the problem. If that does not help, you should speak to his or her supervisor. The supervisor will hear your concerns and attempt to find the best solution. Usually, that does not involve changing attorneys. If your attorney is a court-appointed attorney, only the Judge can appoint a different attorney to represent you. The Public Defender’s Office cannot assist you with this, and we cannot discuss your complaints about your attorney with you.


I owe court costs on my criminal court cases, but I cannot afford to pay them. What can I do?

If you cannot pay your fines and costs within 30 days, you can go to the clerk’s office for that particular court, and ask to be put on a payment plan. The Supreme Court of Virginia put rules into place about payment plans, and you cannot be denied a payment plan just because of defaulting on a prior payment plan, or because the fines and costs have been sent to collections. The court has to take into account your financial situation, including your income and any other debts you may owe. We also recommend asking the clerk’s office if you can do community service to reduce your fines and costs, though whether this is allowed will vary from court to court.