“WHERE WAS I AT?!” AMPLIFYING CLIENT VOICE IN THE STRUGGLE FOR REFORM
Indigent defense reform advocates should recruit one of their strongest allies in the struggle to provide high-quality service: the informed, proactive client. Indigent defendants who fully understand the right to counsel and their lawyers’ corresponding duties to communicate, investigate and advocate can support demands for the time and resources necessary to fulfill those duties. Client-rights information forms and client satisfaction surveys are good megaphones for amplifying client voice—not only in particular cases but also in the broader fight to improve indigent defense systems.
For example, the Indigent Defense Clinic at the University of Cincinnati College of Law partners with the local public defender office to provide each client with a Client’s Bill of Rights. This short form explains the attorney’s duties to communicate, investigate, and advocate. The form also encourages the client to ask questions if it appears that counsel is not fulfilling these duties.
The same jurisdiction successfully tested a client satisfaction survey, which probed clients’ understanding of their rights and counsel’s efforts to fulfill their corresponding duties. The project used random-sample surveys and a focus group discussion. This type of empirical research highlights the importance of attorney-client communication for building trust and mutual cooperation, as well as for improving clients’ perceptions of system legitimacy and even respect for the law.
The variables in the Cincinnati study focused on the extent to which clients felt their voices were heard. Client satisfaction was most closely linked with how well attorneys listened to the clients, sought client input, investigated cases, and informed clients about case progress and possible consequences. Clients knew their lawyers had “ridiculous” workloads, but wanted them to “Come to the cell block, talk to me … . Have me explain exactly what happened.” One client felt erased from the process when his lawyer instead simply told him, “If we plead this the judge already said that he would do this.” The client protested, “When did that happen?! Where was I at?!”
More research is needed to expand the study’s sample set and variables. Yet the results indicate several benefits from amplifying client voice through client rights/client satisfaction tools. Clients can support demands for the time and resources needed to communicate, investigate, and advocate. Those demands may improve case outcomes and client perceptions of those outcomes. Where those demands fail, empirical evidence of clients’ experiences and perceptions strengthens the case for system reform. Whether that case is made through litigation or policy advocacy, the fully informed client is a crucial and underutilized partner in the ongoing fight to improve the quality of indigent defense service.