This article on ‘Gideon v. Wainwright – The Right to Counsel’ is written by Nilanjana Banerjee and aims at exploring the extent of the 6th amendment and the Gideon v. Wainwright case. I. Introduction Natural rights and natural justice hold an immensely significant status in every human’s life. As per this, living beings own the right to life,… Read More »

This article on ‘Gideon v. Wainwright – The Right to Counsel’ is written by Nilanjana Banerjee and aims at exploring the extent of the 6th amendment and the Gideon v. Wainwright case. I. Introduction Natural rights and natural justice hold an immensely significant status in every human’s life. As per this, living beings own the right to life, freedom, right to be treated equally, justice, right to fair trial etc. There are two principles of natural justice: Nemo debet...

This article on ‘Gideon v. Wainwright – The Right to Counsel’ is written by Nilanjana Banerjee and aims at exploring the extent of the 6th amendment and the Gideon v. Wainwright case.

I. Introduction

Natural rights and natural justice hold an immensely significant status in every human’s life. As per this, living beings own the right to life, freedom, right to be treated equally, justice, right to fair trial etc.

There are two principles of natural justice:

  1. Nemo debet esse judex in propria causa– No man can be a judge in his own cause.
  2. Audi Alteram partem– No man should be condemned unheard.

The principle of audi alteram partem i.e. both the parties should get an opportunity to be heard before the court and only then a decision should be taken, has two different parts and they are right to notice and right to a fair hearing.

Before any action is taken or court proceedings are initiated against any party, the notice must be served to the concerned party. It is the sine qua non of a fair trial and hence not abiding by it would pave the way to grave violation of natural justice. Hearing is the second ingredient of a fair trial.

As per rules of natural justice, every party (before the court) should have the right to be heard but for presenting the matter before the court, having an attorney is a must. This is so because, the court system runs that way and the procedure of the court is cumbersome, hence beyond the understanding of the common men.

The parties should be given an opportunity to present their argument before the honourable court but generally, the legal procedures are so cumbersome that laymen can’t comprehend them and thus they need attorneys to present their side before the court.

Along with being cumbersome, these legal procedures can be extremely costly like affording good counsel. This right to present and the right to have legal counsel is the sine qua non. That’s why the 6th amendment to the U.S. Constitution has enshrined the right to legal counsel.

II. Pre- Gideon v. Wainwright

The pre-Gideon v. Wainwright status can be understood well by reading the case of Betts v. Brady and several other cases as will be discussed hereinafter.

The case of Betts v. Brady[1] arose out of a conviction for a robbery case that did not carry any potential death sentence. Mr. Betts, the accused had requested counsel to represent him in court (in his defence), but his request was denied. At that time, only a few states had laws for appointing a counsel for felony and misdemeanour. And most of the states made it in a way where the judge’s discretion is given priority.

The issue here arose ‘whether the law now demands that in every criminal case, a state will have to furnish a lawyer if the party is not having one to represent’. Also, whether such a provision is dictated by natural and fundamental principles of a fair trial.

Upon the facts of this case, the court refused to mandate the appointment of a counsel to represent an indigent party in the trial and it was said that this is not a violation of the 14th amendment due process clause. The court referred to several other cases, opinions of representatives and came to the conclusion that the appointment of counsel in criminal cases for the indigent defendants is neither a fundamental right nor an essential element of a fair trial. There can’t be any hard and fast rule regarding furnishing a counsel.

III. Role of the sixth Amendment

The words of 6th amendment are-

“In all criminal prosecution, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witness against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favour, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defence.”[2]

The 6th amendment came in 1791 and it clearly established the procedures governing the criminal courts. This leads to the evolution of the principle of ‘justice delayed is justice denied. It focuses on speedy trial, transparency and fairness in the trial.

The first clause of the 6th amendment talks about elements of due process. It tries to seek impartiality and keep away the bias in the decision-making process. Both prosecution and defence should get the opportunity to participate in the criminal prosecution. Moreover, the suspect or accused should be aware of the crimes and charges they are being prosecuted for. Thereafter, is the confrontation clause which reinforces the right of the accused person. The defendants are entitled to be present during their defence and when the prosecution witnesses are in the court.

And lastly, the final clause entitles the accused to have legal counsel in court for presentation, also during custodial interrogation. In case, there is no criminal legal assistant, there are chances that the accused will be compelled, threatened to give testimony against his own will. Moreover, the legal procedures are cumbersome and beyond the understanding of a layman.

Therefore, there are chances that the accused will not be able to sketch an effective defence plan, and hence without legal counsel, the trial will be lopsided in favour of the state. The presence of legal counsel can level up the side of the accused and provide him or her with a fair trial.

The development of this right began in the case of Powell v. Alabama[3]. In this case, the court had set aside the conviction of black youths who were sentenced to death in a hasty trial and that too without representation without counsel. Justice Sutherlands said that the court requires to abide by the fundamental rights associated with hearing in any criminal procedure and the ‘right to aid of counsel’.

Further, it was said right to be heard would be of little or no help if the right to have access to counsel is not comprehended. As already said, a layman possesses either small or no skill of law, thus he will be incompetent to produce his case before the judge, manage evidence simultaneously. Not having counsel is said to be a violation of the due process clause of the 14th amendment. The court recognises that the youths could not afford counsel and it was attributed to their ignorance and illiteracy. Having counsel was considered so vital that d=failure of it was considered the denial of 14th amendment.

The next case further expanded the view. It was the case of Johnson v. Zerbst[4], where the court had announced that having counsel is an absolute right.

Justice Black, in this case, wrote that ”‘the right of assistance of counsel’, is necessary to ensure fundamental human rights of life and liberty. The 6th amendment withholds from federal courts, in all criminal proceedings, the power and authority to deprive an accused of his life and liberty unless he has or waives the assistance of counsel”.[5]

He further added that such waiver of rights must be by intelligent choice of the person and not by presumption through silence. The ‘special requirements’ for appointment of counsel, (as was laid down in Powell v. Alabama) was abandoned in Hamilton v. Alabama[6]. The court here said that in a capital case, there is no need of showing any particularised need for appointing a counsel, while in non-capital cases, the ‘special requirement’ rule still exists.

Justice Harlan laid down three categories of judicial factors to determine when a counsel needs to be furnished. Those three are-

  1. The personal issue of the defendant made it unlikely to obtain adequate defence of his own.
  2. The technical complexity of charges
  3. Such events occurred during the trial which raised the problem of prejudice.

Against these backgrounds, Gideon v Wainwright overruled the Betts v. Brady case.

IV. Gideon v. Wainwright[7]

This case began in 1961 with the arrest of Earl Gideon who was charged with breaking and entering Panama City, Florida. Thereafter he broke open in a pool hall and stole money from there. In the trial, he could not afford a counsel to represent him and requested the court to appoint a counsel for him, by virtue of the 6th and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution.

Turning down his request, the Florida court said that they provide counsel only to those who are being prosecuted for such crimes which have the potential to result in the death penalty ( when found guilty) and he was convicted and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment.

While in prison, he filed a habeas corpus (a petition for his release from allegedly unconstitutional imprisonment) to Florida Supreme Court. He claimed that his punishment was unconstitutional because he was not represented by his legal counsel and his constitutional rights of the 6th and 14th Amendments were denied. However his petition was denied by Florida Supreme Court, hence he decided to appeal to US Supreme Court. The Justices there took interest in the petition and reviewed it in 1963.

In US Supreme Court, the judges unanimously ruled that Gideon’s imprisonment was unconstitutional and his rights were violated. Justice Hugo Black ruled that criminal defendants are entitled to get represented by legal counsel even if they are indigent and incapable of affording an attorney.

The justices went further and declared that the 6th amendment will be applicable on every defendant charged with a felony (where punishment is usually more than one year). When required, courts are bound to provide counsel as it is an essential element of a fair trial.

There is a presumption that under the 6th amendment, a criminal defendant reserves the right to choose a counsel but that right is not an absolute one. The approach of the court in Gideon v. Wainwright is considered to be innovative and it extended the arena of the right to counsel.


References

[1] 316 U.S. 455 (1942)

[2] U.S. CONST. Amend VI

[3] 287 U.S. 45 (1932)

[4] 304 U.S. 458 (1938)

[5] Id.

[6] 368 U.S. 52 (1961)

[7] 372 U.S. 335 (1963)


  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination
Updated On 2021-09-01T11:38:41+05:30
Nilanjana Banerjee

Nilanjana Banerjee

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