Courts are required to provide a criminal defense lawyer (public defender) for a defendant who cannot afford an attorney. This publication describes how to get a public defender, general suggestions for working with a public defender, and steps to resolve a conflict with a public defender.

How to Get a Public Defender

An individual charged with a crime can be appointed a public defender if the individual meets certain financial eligibility requirements. To determine whether an individual meets the financial eligibility criteria, the individual can contact the Office of Public Defense for the county or city in which the proceedings will take place. A list of public defense offices can be found on the Washington State Office of Public Defense website:

General Suggestions for Working with a Public Defender


  • When the client is notified that a public defender has been assigned, the client should contact the public defender as soon as possible.
  • The client and public defender can work together to determine how they will generally communicate with each other (by phone, email, in person, etc.), and what steps the client can take to further assist the public defender.
  • The client should not be afraid to raise questions or concerns with the public defender, but should try not to overwhelm the attorney with multiple messages.
  • The client should expect to meet with the assigned public defender privately because the public defender’s relationship is with the client, not the client’s family or friends. Friends or family members should expect to be asked to wait outside the room once a meeting begins.
  • The client should answer the public defender’s questions truthfully and as completely as possible. Almost everything a client discusses with the assigned public defender is confidential.

Discussing the Client’s Disability

  • If the client identifies as having a disability or other special needs, the client can alert the attorney to the disability or special need. The public defender should work with the client in making accommodations in meetings and in court. However, this is best accomplished if the attorney understands the nature of the disability or special need and any specific aids or tools that will facilitate meetings and court appearances.
  • If necessary, the attorney may file a request for reasonable accommodations in court under General Rule 33. Forms for requesting an accommodation in court can be found at the Washington Courts website:

Court Appearances

  • The client should come to all meetings and court appearances on time, organized, and prepared with any necessary paperwork. Additionally, the client should allow plenty of time to get to court, and be prepared to wait.
  • If the client cannot make it to court or is late, the client should contact the public defender. If the client does not inform the public defender and misses a court date, the court may issue a bench warrant for the client’s arrest.
  • The client should not bring children or animals to court, unless the animal is a service animal. The client should try not to create any disturbance while at court.

Steps to Resolve Conflicts with a Public Defender

  1. The client can contact the public defender directly and try to resolve the issue.
  2. If that does not resolve the conflict, the client can raise the issue with the public defender’s supervisor.
  3. The client can also ask the court for a new public defender by filing a timely motion for new counsel if there is a conflict of interest or irreconcilable differences between the client and the public defender. The trial court is supposed to conduct an in-depth inquiry into the nature and extent of the conflict.
  4. The client can file a complaint or a grievance against the public defender with the Washington State Bar Association. The county or city’s Office of Public Defense may also have a complaint process.


Washington State Bar Association
1325 4th Ave, Ste 600
Seattle, WA 98101-2539
(206) 443-9722 / (800) 945-9722

Washington State Office of Public Defense
Evergreen Plaza Building
711 Capitol Way S, Ste 106
P.O. Box 40957
Olympia, WA 98504
(360) 586-3164

Disability Rights Washington
315 5th Ave S, Ste 850
Seattle, WA 98104
(206) 324-1521 / (800) 562-2702
Fax: (206) 957-0729
Interpreters available

The following federal funding partners shared in the cost of producing this material: the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, AIDD (1501WAPADD); the Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA (15SMP05397); and the Rehabilitation Services Administration, RSA (H240A140048). These contents are the sole responsibility of Disability Rights Washington and do not necessarily represent the official views of AIDD, SAMHSA or RSA.

This information is current as of: June 2019

This information is a service of Disability Rights Washington (DRW). It provides general information as a public service only, and is not legal advice. If you need legal advice, you should contact an attorney. You do not have an attorney-client relationship with DRW.  If you would like more information about this topic or would like to receive this information in an alternative format call DRW at (800) 562-2702, or email

Always advocate in a timely manner. Please be aware that there are certain time limits or deadlines to file a complaint, a lawsuit, or take legal action.

DRW cannot guarantee that any individual or organization included in this material will represent or assist you. DRW also cannot guarantee the quality of this individual’s or organization’s representation.

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Disability Rights Washington
315 5th Ave S, Ste 850
Seattle, WA 98104
Voice: (206) 324-1521 or (800) 562-2702
Fax: (206) 957-0729

Interpreters available.

DRW is a member of the National Disability Rights Network.
A substantial portion of the DRW budget is federally funded.