The ideology of fair & speedy trials in this country is age-old and almost inherent in our creed, but almost from the start it also presented a lot of challenges, some of which are still very much with us today.
Wikipedia states that, historically, legal aid has its roots in the right to counsel and right to a fair trial movement in 19th Century continental European countries. "Poor man's laws" waives court fees for the poor and provided for the appointment of duty solicitors for those who could not afford to pay for a solicitor. Initially the expectation was that duty solicitors would act on a pro bono basis. In the early 20th Century many European countries had no formal approach to legal aid and the poor relied on the charity of lawyers for legal aid… Beginning in the late 1800s and throughout the early years of the 20th century, one Wikipedia article relates, the American legal profession expressed its commitment to the concept of free legal assistance for poor people in the form of legal aid societies and bar association legal aid committees… The first legal aid society, The German Society of New York, was founded in 1876 to protect German immigrants from exploitation.
The Supreme Court cases Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 – and Henry Fonda’s portrayal 15 years later in Gideon's Trumpet – and Miranda v. Arizona in 1966, magnified and brought indigent rights more into public view. – What a lot of people don’t realize is that these cases were criminal in nature, not civil. The right to legal counsel in criminal cases is founded in Sixth Amendment provisions of a fair & speedy trial by an impartial jury, but those provisions only protect against possible sentences of jail or prison time.
Different jurisdictions have come to have different approaches in providing legal counsel for criminal defendants who do not have financial access to a private attorney, Wikipedia's article on public defenders says. "Under the federal system and most common among the states is a publicly funded public defender office, which typically functions as an agency of the federal, state or local government and as such, these attorneys are compensated as salaried government employees." Here in Cincinnati and Hamilton County, for instance, both criminal & civil cases were initially provided for by the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati until 1976 when the state passed legislation for its own public defenders system.
An second Wikipedia article notes, "Congress, in 1974, created the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to provide federal funding for civil (non-criminal) legal aid services, but that that funding has fluctuated dramatically over the past three decades depending upon which political parties were in control of Congress and the White House.
The President in his $3.7 trillion 2012 budget proposal called for a $30 million increase in LSC funding for the next fiscal year. ( Blog of LegalTimes had more )
Commissioners in Butler County, Ohio, which had used non-profit corporations for Guardian Ad Litem services or court-appointed outside counsel, last week approved spending $1.36 million on a project that calls for the hiring of nearly four dozen part-time attorneys to represent poor criminals in common pleas court, municipal courts in Middletown and Hamilton and the county's three area courts; and salaries for a public defender at $47,180 a year, two secretaries and two investigators. That plan now has yet to be approved by the Ohio Public Defender's Office. The Cincinnati Enquirer in reporting this also observed that "Hamilton and Clermont counties have public defender systems in place while judges in Warren County appoint attorneys for indigent defendants."
And speaking of Hamilton County, we have a new public defender. Sheila Kyle-Reno takes office March 14th., having for the last six years, served as directing attorney for the Elizabethtown trial office of the Kentucky Department o Public Advocacy - Kentucky's state version of the public defender's office. Ms. Kyle-Reno is taking over for retiring Lou Strigari, who had been Hamilton County’s Public Defender since 1994. ( More )