The Law: When a Lawyer Errs

Every criminal defendant who faces the possibility of going to prison is entitled to a lawyer, the Supreme Court ruled in 1972. But how good must the lawyer be? Last week a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia endorsed a set of standards that lawyers must meet. It then added the startling requirement that whenever a defendant shows that his lawyer was seriously inadequate, the federal prosecutor bears the burden of proving "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the lawyer's action did no harm to his client's chances.

Chief Judge David Bazelon, long a pioneer in...

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