How to Apply for a Lawyer

Adults and juveniles who are charged with crimes or faced with the possible loss of custody of their children to the state may be referred to the Rhode Island Public Defender by a judge to apply for a lawyer if they cannot afford to hire an attorney.

This referral can occur at any time over the course of a case, but it generally happens during a defendant's first court appearance, called an arraignment.

After you have been arraigned and referred to the Rhode Island Public Defender, a person must participate in an intake interview with our office unless a private lawyer will be hired.

You should interview as soon as possible, preferably the same day you are referred to the public defender, but at least one week before your next court date. Please see interview times and places, below.

  • If you are charged with a misdemeanor criminal offense and released, you can interview for a public defender after your first court date, known as an arraignment, in District Court. We generally do not interview potential clients before the arraignment on misdemeanor cases.
  • If you are charged with a felony criminal offense, you can interview for a public defender any time after you are arrested and released, whether that is from the police station or the court.
  • If you or a loved one is held at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI), someone from our office will go out to the ACI to conduct the interview within several days of the first court appearance.
  • If you have a DCYF case and are threatened with the loss of custody of your children as a result of dependency, neglect or abuse allegations, you must go to your first court date to find out if you will be referred to the public defender or another agency before being interviewed.
  • If you (or your child) are being charged in the Family Court with a juvenile wayward, delinquency or status offense petition, both the child and the child's parents must interview for a public defender after the arraignment date. In some cases, if the child is emancipated, estranged from their family, or if the petition was filed by a parent, the child may interview without their parents.

We take interviews on a walk-in basis in our courthouse offices at the following locations and times:

  • Garrahy Judicial Complex, 1 Dorrance Plaza 1st floor, Providence, RI 02903
    Monday through Friday 9:00 am - 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm - 4:00 pm
  • Kent County Courthouse, 222 Quaker Lane Suite 100, Warwick, RI 02886
    Monday through Friday 9:00 am - 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm - 4:00 pm
  • Newport County Courthouse, 45 Washington Square 3rd floor, Newport, RI 02840
    Wednesdays only 9:00 am - 12:30 pm
  • Washington County Courthouse, 4800 Tower Hill Rd. Suite 243, Wakefield, RI 02879
    Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday 9:00 am - 1:00 pm
Being interviewed at the courthouse where the charge or case is pending is most efficient, but if that is inconvenient, a client may be interviewed anywhere in the state.

Frequently Asked Questions

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  • What happens during the interview?
  • What happens after I interview?
  • What criteria does the Rhode Island Public Defender use to determine financial eligibility?
  • What if I am found ineligible?
  • What if I need an interpreter?
  • How can individuals held at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) contact the Rhode Island Public Defender?
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Interviews are conducted by Intake staff as well as supervised interns. During this confidential interview, we ask questions about your contact and financial information as well as personal background and case information. Please come prepared to disclose your financial information including your income, assets, expenses and liabilities (debts). This information is used to determine eligibility for a Public Defender.

Additionally, remember to share any information that may be helpful to your attorney in defending your case during your interview – this includes the names or contact information for witnesses, evidence including pictures or documentation of injuries, or information regarding any medical or mental health conditions that may be pertinent to your case.

All applicants are required to sign an affidavit stating they are without the resources to retain private counsel, and do not have anyone obligated by law to pay that expense for them. A supervising attorney then reviews the interview, and if eligible, an attorney is assigned. Clients are directed to call our office one week after the interview to find out about eligibility.

After the interview, clients are directed to call our office one week after the interview to find out about eligibility. If your case is pending in…

  • Providence County District or Superior Court, call (401) 222-3492
  • Kent County District or Superior Court, call (401) 822-6875
  • Newport County District or Superior Court, call (401) 841-8320
  • Washington County District or Superior Court, call (401) 782-4180
  • Family Court, call (401) 222-1530

During that time, your interview will be reviewed by a supervising attorney to determine if you are eligible. There are four possible results of that review:

  • The applicant is found eligible. An attorney will then be assigned who will enter a formal appearance with the appropriate court. Unless there is not sufficient time, clients will receive a letter from their newly-assigned attorney before their next court date.
  • The applicant is found financially ineligible and will be required to retain private counsel at his or her own expense. If several attempts to retain counsel are unsuccessful, the applicant should seek reconsideration and present whatever documentation exists of their efforts.
  • The applicant is financially eligible but a conflict of interest or other reason prevents the public defender from representing the applicant. In that event, the public defender will notify the referring court and the court will appoint a private attorney from a list of qualified attorneys; the client will not be charged for this representation.
  • More information is needed. If this is the case, the public defender will specify what documentation or additional information is required.

In Rhode Island, there is no fixed amount of income or assets that makes someone eligible or ineligible for public defender representation, except that persons receiving needs-based government assistance (such as SSI, TANF, and other payments) are automatically eligible.

The public defender assesses an applicant's income and assets as well as their expenses and liabilities (debts). We take particular account of those expenses that are necessary to basic needs, such as food, shelter, medical costs and clothing, and to those expenses for essential activities, such as transportation to a job or school. We also take account of debts already owed to the justice system, such as outstanding fines, fees and restitution. An applicant need not be destitute to be financially eligible for public defender representation. For example, someone who owns a home will not be required to sell the house, but if the applicant has a lot of equity in the house and the ability to obtain and pay a loan, the public defender may require that avenue to be pursued.

Financial eligibility for public defender representation depends not only on an applicant's income and other financial resources, but also on the type of case, since fees for retained counsel vary with the complexity of the case; a particular person might not be financially eligible for public defender representation on a misdemeanor but be eligible if charged with a felony because retaining counsel for felony representation is likely to cost much more than retaining counsel for misdemeanor representation.

An applicant who is found financially ineligible will be required to retain private counsel at his or her own expense. If several attempts to retain counsel are unsuccessful, the applicant should seek reconsideration and present whatever documentation exists of their efforts. Anyone found ineligible may seek reconsideration, particularly if they make unsuccessful attempts to retain an attorney. Sometimes, if there is a question about eligibility that cannot be resolved by a simple interview, an applicant will be required to prove financial information with income records, bank statements, tax or property records, and similar documentation.

Please notify intake staff that you are in need of an interpreter so we can ensure interpretation services are available.

Public Defender Offices and Divisions can be contacted toll-free from the ACI by dialing the numbers indicated below:

  • *9001 - Public Defender Main Office, General Information
  • *9004 - Appellate Division
  • *9005 - Providence County Public Defender Misdemeanor Trial Division
  • *9006 - Family Court Division (Parental Rights Unit and Juvenile Division)
  • *9007 - Providence County Public Defender Felony Trial Division
  • *9009 - Public Defender Main Office, Administration
  • *9011 - Providence County Felony Probation Violation Unit (Licht Courthouse)
  • *9012 - Public Defender Garrahy Courthouse Office
  • *9013 - Public Defender Social Worker Unit
  • *9014 - Public Defender Washington County Office
  • *9015 - Public Defender Newport County Office
  • *9016 - Public Defender Kent County Office