Can’t Afford an Attorney? Virginia Law Tells Poor People To Pay Anyway


Between FY2019 and FY2023, Virginia state courts annually imposed over $34.7 million in court-appointed attorney fees. 

The U.S. Constitution requires that the government ensures people can have an attorney if accused of criminal charges that can draw jail time. In Virginia, a defendant with a very low income–below 125 percent of the federal poverty level–who is facing jail time will qualify for a court-appointed attorney or public defender. However, those same low-income Virginians are later charged recoupment fees post-conviction or after agreeing to deferred disposition. This court debt can accumulate thousands of dollars, leading to severe penalties. This report describes the current system in Virginia, its problems and provides recommendations for reform. 

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • Only people living below 125 percent of the federal poverty level–$18,225 a year for a single-person household and $37,500 for a family of four–qualify for a court-appointed attorney or public defender.
  • In Virginia, court debt is collectible for 30 to 60 years after a conviction.
  • Court-appointed attorney fees can be more than 50 percent of a person’s overall court debt.
  • Over five years, Virginia courts only collected 36 percent of court-appointed attorney fee debt from low-income people annually; only three percent was collected in the same year it was assessed.
  • Revenue from court-appointed attorney fees represents just .019 percent of the state budget.
  • Jurisdictions with the highest percentage of people living at or below 125 percent of the poverty line charge an average of $590 in court-appointed attorney fees—60 percent higher than jurisdictions with the highest incomes.


  • Eliminate court-appointed attorney fee recoupment.
Pat Levy-Lavelle
Legal Aid Justice Center