Assigned Counsel (Public Defenders)

The Bellingham Municipal Court’s assigned counsel program has been recognized as a model for indigent defense, as reported in the Washington State Bar News.


Criminal defendants and probationers in Bellingham Municipal Court may qualify to be represented by assigned counsel, also known as public defenders, if they are found to be in need  pursuant to Washington State poverty guidelines.

Defendants in infraction cases, civil cases, and those seeking post-conviction relief other than direct appeals of their criminal convictions do not qualify for assigned counsel. Criminal defendants and probationers may hire an attorney of their own choosing at their own expense, represent themselves, or apply for assigned counsel.


Assigned counsel are available at all arraignment calendars to answer questions and represent those charged with crimes, regardless of a defendant’s financial status. If a defendant would like assigned counsel to represent him or her after arraignment, the defendant must immediately complete a written application at the clerk’s window in the lobby.  If additional documentation is required to complete the application, that documentation should be submitted within one week of the arraignment.

Application Process

The Court’s application process has been simplified in order to promote efficiency. A defendant may qualify if he or she meets Washington State poverty guidelines and/or if the defendant receives certain forms of governmental assistance, such as general assistance, food stamps, social security disability payments, and TANIF.

Depending on the applicant’s status, the following documents are required:

  • EMPLOYED-Bring the most recent three months of pay stubs showing year-to-date totals;
  • SELF-EMPLOYED-Bring a current profit/loss statement, statement of net worth or quarterly income, or a signed copy of most recent federal income tax return or proof of non-filing status. IRS phone number is 1-800-829-1040;
  • UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS-Bring written proof of denial of benefits or most recent printout of benefits. Phone Washington Unemployment Claims Tele center at 1-800-318-6022 for assistance;
  • SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY OR OTHER BENEFICIARY-Bring a statement from Social Security showing monthly income amount or three most recent banks statements showing direct deposit;
  • STUDENT-Bring award letter showing the last three quarter totals from the financial aid office. Student aid is considered income for purposes of qualifying for a public defender;
  • FOOD STAMP/TANIF RECIPIENT-Provide current award letter from DSHS. Phone 1-877-501-2233 for DSHS.

If a defendant is qualified for a public defender, court staff will direct the defendant to contact assigned counsel in five (5) business days. If a defendant is found ineligible for assigned counsel, the defendant may contact the clerk’s window or call (360)778-8150 to request a hearing before the judge to appeal the initial determination of eligibility. These hearings will be scheduled on a Monday, Thursday, or Friday at 9:45 a.m.​

NOTE: If a defendant is found guilty, the defendant may be required to contribute towards the costs of assigned counsel as a condition of the sentence.