The Differences in the Ethical Obligations of Defense & Prosecuting Attorneys


Defense and prosecuting attorneys share several commonalities as officers of a court of law. However, when it comes to professional ethics they are a world apart in actual courtroom proceedings. Both groups have very specific ethical responsibilities to their clients, the administration of justice and the court itself. Over the course of a trial these ethical differences in obligations define the motives and actions of both parties.

Client's Welfare

  • Defense attorneys are ethically bound to their clients. They must defend them to the best of their ability and look out for what is best for them. It doesn't matter whether the defendant is a serial killer or a rapist, a defense attorney is ethically obliged to provide the best possible defence. In this instance, getting a murderer off the hook is the ethically responsible thing to do. Prosecuting attorneys' clients are usually the people of a specific city or country. Prosecutors are ethically responsible to find justice in a more conventional sense, and therefore serve to protect their area of practice from dangerous criminals.

Administration of Justice

  • Defense attorneys are not ethically obliged to get as many criminals as they can back onto the street. They are, however, ethically bound to the system of justice. To ensure the integrity and fairness of the legal system as a whole it is their ethical duty to fight relentlessly against the prosecution. Doing otherwise could get innocent people imprisoned or result in a lack of faith in the administration of justice. Prosecuting attorneys are simply ethically obliged to convict as many criminals as they can. They trust that the police work that preceded the trial was accurate and they trust that the judge or jury will be fair in their final rulings.


  • Defense attorney's are ethically obliged to yield to the decisions of their clients. Unless a client is clear that she wants her attorney to do as he sees fit, a defense attorney can only offer advice and suggest a course of action. Prosecuting attorneys on the other hand have full autonomy. They can take their case in whatever direction they please and can implement their own courtroom strategies in attempting to get a conviction. While their client is technically the people in their area of practice, the public has no say in the actions of a prosecutor and a prosecutor is not ethically bound to abide by their preferences.


  • While attempting to protect their client's rights, defense attorneys are ethically obliged to turn over any evidence in their possession that is necessary for the administration of justice. In other words defense attorney's are forbidden from hiding evidence needed by the prosecution. Similarly, if a defense attorney is aware of an imminent crime, he is required to alert the authorities even if doing so puts his client at greater risk of being convicted. Prosecuting attorneys are also ethically responsible for relating relevant evidence to the defense, including any medical examiner reports or crime-scene investigation documents.


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