If You Can’t Afford an Attorney, One Will Be Appointed. And You May Get a Huge Bill


In the last decade, Iowa courts have imposed more than $150 million in attorney fees—roughly 70 percent has gone unpaid.

Although the majority of states try to recoup counsel fees for indigent defenders, Iowa charges some of the highest fees. Even in cases where individuals are acquitted, or charges are dropped, Iowa still requires payment for legal aid from those who cannot afford it. An investigation by the Marshall Project found disparities in attorney fees in different communities in Iowa and a lack of consistency in how judges assess attorney fees. While some judges may order community service or a payment plan as an alternative to a lump sum, many individuals are required to pay the full costs of an attorney. This report also shares first-hand accounts of the financial hardships Iowans face when they’re unable to pay their attorney fees, such as driver’s license suspensions, wage garnishments, and harassment from debt collection agencies.

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Key Findings:

  • Between 2012 and 2022, indigent people who were acquitted or whose charges were dropped were billed $30 million in attorney fees.
  • Indigent offenders with a public defender’s office in their counties are charged, on average, $312 for their defense compared to individuals in rural counties with access to only court-appointed attorneys, who are charged an average of $506.
  • Defendants are appointed contract attorneys with rates between $73-$83 an hour; if a paralegal assists with their case, their hourly rates are $25.
  • Only thirteen of Iowa’s 86 counties have public defenders.
Lauren Gill and Weihua Li
The Marshall Project and The Des Moines Register