These standards describe the basic elements of effective, ethical and constitutional representation due every person accused of a crime. As such, they are not aspirational; they constitute the minimum level of service every Nashville Defender client deserves and should receive. Our commitment is to do our best to meet these standards for every client, and if we fall short, to identify the reasons why, and do what we can to address it.
Vertical/Single Attorney Representation
Attorneys shall represent a client from the time of case assignment until the case is closed, unless a supervisor approves transfer of the case to another attorney. Attorneys shall appear with a client at all substantive court appearances. If the client is charged with any new offenses during the course of representation, the attorney shall represent the client on those charges as well (assuming no conflict of interest exists for the Office).
Attorneys should meet with a client in person as soon as possible after case assignment, and before the first court appearance date. For clients in jail, the first meeting should occur within 72 hours of case assignment (within one week for cases initially assigned at arraignment), and sooner in the most serious of cases. This may require an initial meeting outside normal office hours or on a weekend day. For clients on bond, the first meeting should occur within two weeks of case assignment, or no less than four business days before the first court appearance date – whichever is sooner.
At the start of the representation, an attorney should ask a client how the client prefers to communicate with the legal team (in writing, in person, via email, text, phone, video conference, etc), and how often and where a client prefers to communicate. Staff should respect and seek to meet the client’s communication requests.
Attorneys should inform clients as soon as possible about all case developments; changes in attorney should be communicated before the next scheduled court date. Attorneys should explain clearly in advance the purpose of each scheduled court date, and what the client can expect to happen in court that day. When a case is continued, attorneys should inform the client that day of the next court date.
Attorneys should see a client in custody at least once a month, unless the client prefers fewer meetings. Attorneys should respond to client inquiries within 48 hours (72 hours over the weekend). If an attorney is unable to do so, he/she should direct another staff member to inform the client when the attorney will respond.
Before having a substantive conversation with a prosecutor about a case, attorneys should meet the client, discuss his/her situation and initial goals for the case, and determine if the client has any other active involvement in the criminal courts.
Prior to advising a client whether to take a plea, attorneys should fully advise a client about the following:
1. What the State must prove to convict the client of the charged offense(s);
2. The strengths/weaknesses of the evidence against client;
3. The possible defenses available to the client, and strengths/weaknesses of those;
4. Any other potential courses of action to fight the charges (i.e., legal issues in the case);
5. All potential plea bargain offers, the collateral consequences of each, and what efforts the attorney has made to negotiate a better outcome;
6. How each course of action available to the client meets or does not meet the client’s stated goals;
7. What, if anything, you have not yet done that would be appropriate if time permitted; and
8. Your recommendation about the plea offer, if you have one, and why that is your recommendation.
Fact and Mitigation Investigation
Attorneys should conduct a factual investigation as soon as possible after case assignment, and before advising a client whether to accept a plea offer. The nature of the investigation to be done depends upon the case, but includes witness interviews, evidence collection and examination, document review, scene visits, and other relevant work. In cases bound over to the Grand Jury, attorneys should meet with an investigator in a timely manner thereafter (within two weeks of receiving the bind over file) to develop an investigation strategy. When necessary to pursue time-sensitive information, such meetings should occur even sooner.
Attorneys should conduct sentencing mitigation investigation, when appropriate, as soon as possible after case assignment, and before advising a client whether to accept a plea offer. This includes investigation into social, medical, economic, racial, ethnic, educational, cultural or other factors that may impact the client’s case, and may require involvement of the social services staff.
Legal Issues and Research
If a client is in custody, attorneys should evaluate all potential options for seeking and obtaining the client’s release from custody pending trial, and discuss those options with the client. If a decision is made not to seek the client’s release, attorneys should document the reasons for that decision in the client’s file.
As soon as possible, attorneys should identify potential legal issues in the case, and conduct preliminary research on the viability of those issues being raised successfully, including suppression of evidence; dismissal of charges; exclusion of evidence; discovery of exculpatory evidence; statutory challenges; constitutional challenges; etc. Attorneys should discuss these matters with the client as well, and seek to litigate any such issues as early in the case as appropriate.
All team members should document with particularity and detail actions taken and work performed on a case in the client’s case file (either electronic or paper file), including accurate time entries. Additionally, if and when one or more of these representation standards were not met in a case, for reasons that are not obvious (i.e., a case was resolved on jail review docket), staff should document the reason(s) why in the client’s file.
Prior to case disposition, attorneys should identify potential collateral consequences of the client’s involvement with the criminal justice system, and seek to mitigate any negative consequences in a timely manner. Attorneys should identify potential collateral consequences of a client’s conviction, or of any plea bargain offers, and educate the client thoroughly about those consequences. Attorneys should seek to mitigate collateral consequences through plea bargains and sentencing advocacy.
Team members shall assist the client with post-disposition issues related to the client’s case and/or sentence, including jail credit, motions to suspend, treatment, expungement, court costs & DL consequences, etc.