Rhode Island Public Defender

Our mission is to provide high quality representation to our clients, fulfilling the governmental obligation of effective assistance of counsel, fundamental fairness and due process. Our goal is to provide client-centered advice, holistic representation and zealous advocacy. Our commitment is to treat our clients with dignity, compassion and fairness.
Mary S. McElroy, Public Defender

Intake Interviewing

Determination of Eligibility

Rhode Island Public Defender
160 Pine Street
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-3492


Eligibility and Intake

When there is a constitutional or statutory right to counsel, the government is required to pay the cost of representation for anyone who does not have the resources to hire a private attorney. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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, tax or property records, and similar documentation.

Intake Interviewing

Most cases come to the public defender as a result of being referred by the court in which the charge or case is lodged. That referral usually occurs at the first appearance. Sometimes a person may intend to retain private counsel and discover after their first court appearance that they cannot afford to do so.

Prospective clients may request to be interviewed for financial eligibility regardless of whether they have been referred by a court.

Intake interviews are routinely conducted at four public defender offices throughout the state: in downtown Providence at the Garrahy Courthouse on Dorrance Street, in Warwick at the Noel Courthouse on Quaker Lane, in Newport at the Murray Courthouse in Eisenhower Square, and in Wakefield at the McGrath Courthouse on Tower Hill Road. Some interviewing is done at the Licht Courthouse on Benefit Street in Providence.

Interviewing is generally done on a walk-in basis, on the following schedule:

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.

Determination of Eligibility

  • Eligibility is determined generally within a day or two of the intake interview by the attorney-supervisor serving the court where the case will be heard. 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. Clients are always encouraged to call 2-3 days after the interview to find out the result.
  • 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.

Copyright © 2013 Rhode Island Public Defender