By Jedidiah McKeehan

A phrase that I often hear people say that are unfamiliar with the court system is, “Well, I’ll just go get the court to appoint me a lawyer.” Okay, well that is great if you qualify, but the court will not necessarily appoint you a lawyer. It depends on the kind of case you have and your income and possessions as to whether you are entitled to have a lawyer appointed for you and paid by the state to represent you.

So where does all of this come from? We have all seen the crime shows where they arrest the bad guy and they are leading him off in handcuffs and are reading him his rights. One of those rights is, “You are entitled to a lawyer. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you.” Let’s break this down and see if the bad guy who just got arrested is entitled to an appointed lawyer

First, someone has to be facing jail time in order to qualify for an appointed lawyer. Remember, appointed lawyers are paid by our state tax dollars that you and I are paying. Facing jail time is a big deal so that is why people may get an appointed lawyer for criminal cases while they will not receive an appointed lawyer if they are just being sued on a credit card debt or a past due medical bill. It is important to note that people with traffic tickets who are simply facing a fine and no jail time are not entitled to an appointed lawyer.

Another instance where individuals can receive an appointed lawyer is in juvenile cases where they may potentially lose their parental rights to their children. Losing your children is a big deal, and the state provides those individuals a lawyer as well.

Now when I say, “the state will provide them a lawyer,” what I really mean is that the state MAY provide these people a lawyer. Before someone is appointed a lawyer, the individual seeking an appointed lawyer has to request an appointed lawyer and fill out an Affidavit of Indigency so the court can determine whether someone qualifies to receive an appointed lawyer. The statute that applies to whether someone receives an appointed lawyer for a criminal charge is Tennessee Code Annotated section 40-14-202.

So, when someone applies for an appointed lawyer and fills out an Affidavit, the judge is the person who decides whether someone actually gets an appointed lawyer. There are a number of factors the judge is to consider when deciding whether someone gets an appointed lawyer but the main one is the person’s income in relation to the current U.S. poverty line, which in 2018 is $12,140.00 per year for a one person household.

So, to circle back to where we started, yes, you may be entitled to a free appointed lawyer, but not necessarily.

Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties.  He works in many areas, including criminal, personal injury, landlord-tenant, probate, and estate planning. Visit for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.