Public defenders: judged on results

Public defenders are treated, in England and Wales at least, as something of an anathema. Private practice makes sweeping assumptions about the quality of public defenders which, it usually turns out, are not supported by the evidence. The research tends to suggest that public defender programmes provide quality as good as or better than privately provided programmes (although in England and Wales the cost was significantly higher for public defenders; and there is a reasonable argument that in Scotland results were marginally poorer – from the client’s perspective). A lot depends on how public defender programmes are funded and run: there are good programmes and there are bad programmes. Richard Zorza’s excellent US blog on access to justice issues highlights a recent US paper on outcomes for public defender and assigned counsel programmes. The key sentence is this one: “According to the probit models, defendants with assigned counsel were significantly more likely to be convicted and sentenced to prison, net of controls, compared to defendants represented by public defenders.”

There are, as with any research, plenty of ifs and buts, but public defender research is an interesting element in our understanding of what drives quality in legal services after all public defenders step outside of market forces somewhat and yet they often provide as good or better value than market-driven systems.

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