If you are facing incarceration for either a criminal offense or for violation of a court order on custody or child support you are entitled to legal counsel. If you cannot afford an attorney the Court should give you the opportunity to request a court appointed attorney. You will have to fill out an Affidavit of Indigency and the Court will decide if you make enough money to afford hire your own private counsel. When appointed an attorney you do not pay until the case is completed. If you are found guilty or found in contempt you will have to repay the State for the services of the appointed attorney. In North Carolina those fees generally range from $55-$75 per hour. If the case is dismissed or you are found not guilty you are not responsible for any attorney fees to the State.
Generally speaking if you are in Court and are given the opportunity to apply for a Court appointed attorney you should not refuse. Waiving your right to a Court appointed attorney means you will either represent yourself or hire your own attorney. Unless you plan to represent yourself anyway, do not waive your right to an appointed lawyer. Even if you plan to hire your own lawyer, you may discover you cannot afford an attorney, or may lose your job before you retain an attorney. You can always fire your Court appointed lawyer to hire your own, but generally can’t ask for a court appointed lawyer after finding out you can’t afford private counsel.
So who is a court appointed lawyer? Some counties such as Mecklenburg County have a Public Defender office that is analogous to the District Attorney office in that they represent people who cannot afford an attorney. When the public defender office is overworked or has a conflict there is a list of private attorneys who also take appointed clients. Other counties such as Union County do not have a Public Defender office, but only have a list of private attorneys who are on the Court appointed list. If you are in Union County you will be assigned at random 1 of the 25 or so attorneys who have chosen to be on the Court appointed list.
Why does everyone say not to ask for a court appointed lawyer? Public Defender’s often are often overworked and are less responsive than clients would like. This is especially true if the client is already in jail. Many public defenders’ have a heavy caseload that prevents them from dedicating as much time to each client as a private attorney. As in any profession, there are some who exceed expectations and some who fall short. The same is true of lawyers, both public and private. Also, since you don’t get to choose your appointed lawyer, there is a greater chance you will be assigned an attorney you do not like than if you choose your own attorney. Finally, as stated before you can always fire your court appointed attorney and hire your own.