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234 Pa. Code Rule 121. Waiver of Counsel.

Rule 121. Waiver of Counsel.


   (1)  The defendant may waive the right to be represented by counsel.

   (2)  To ensure that the defendant’s waiver of the right to counsel is knowing, voluntary, and intelligent, the judge or issuing authority, at a minimum, shall elicit the following information from the defendant:

     (a)   that the defendant understands that he or she has the right to be represented by counsel, and the right to have free counsel appointed if the defendant is indigent;

     (b)   that the defendant understands the nature of the charges against the defendant and the elements of each of those charges;

     (c)   that the defendant is aware of the permissible range of sentences and/or fines for the offenses charged;

     (d)   that the defendant understands that if he or she waives the right to counsel, the defendant will still be bound by all the normal rules of procedure and that counsel would be familiar with these rules;

     (e)   that the defendant understands that there are possible defenses to these charges that counsel might be aware of, and if these defenses are not raised at trial, they may be lost permanently; and

     (f)   that the defendant understands that, in addition to defenses, the defendant has many rights that, if not timely asserted, may be lost permanently; and that if errors occur and are not timely objected to, or otherwise timely raised by the defendant, these errors may be lost permanently.

   (3)  The judge or issuing authority may permit the attorney for the Commonwealth or defendant’s attorney to conduct the examination of the defendant pursuant to paragraph (A)(2). The judge or issuing authority shall be present during this examination.

 (B)  PROCEEDINGS BEFORE AN ISSUING AUTHORITY. When the defendant seeks to waive the right to counsel in a summary case or for a preliminary hearing in a court case, the issuing authority shall ascertain from the defendant whether this is a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of counsel. In addition, the waiver shall be in writing,

   (1)  signed by the defendant, with a representation that the defendant was told of the right to be represented and to have an attorney appointed if the defendant cannot afford one, and that the defendant chooses to act as his or her own attorney at the hearing or trial; and

   (2)  signed by the issuing authority, with a certification that the defendant’s waiver was made knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently.

 The waiver shall be made a part of the record.

 (C)  PROCEEDINGS BEFORE A JUDGE. When the defendant seeks to waive the right to counsel after the preliminary hearing, the judge shall ascertain from the defendant, on the record, whether this is a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of counsel.

 (D)  STANDBY COUNSEL. When the defendant’s waiver of counsel is accepted, standby counsel may be appointed for the defendant. Standby counsel shall attend the proceedings and shall be available to the defendant for consultation and advice.


   Paragraph (A) recognizes that the right to self-representation is guaranteed by the sixth amendment to the Federal Constitution when a valid waiver is made, Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975).

   In Indiana v. Edwards, 128 S.Ct. 2379, 2388 (2008), the Supreme Court recognized, as an exception to the right to self-representation, that, when a defendant is not mentally competent to conduct his or her own defense, the U.S. Constitution permits the judge to require the defendant to be represented by counsel.

   The right of a defendant to waive counsel is not automatic. Under Pennsylvania’s case law, the defendant’s request must be clear and unequivocal. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Davido, 582 Pa. 52, 64-65, 868 A.2d 431, 438, cert. denied, 546 U.S 1020 (2005).

   Concerning when ‘‘meaningful trial proceedings’’ commence for purposes of a request to waive counsel for a bench trial, see Commonwealth v. El, 602 Pa. 126, 977 A.2d 1158 (2009). In El, the Court held that ‘‘meaningful trial proceedings’’ commence ‘‘when a court has begun to hear motions which have been reserved for time of trial; when oral arguments have commenced; or when some other such substantive first step in the trial has begun.’’ Id, at 139, 977 A.2d at 1165, citing Commonwealth v. Dowling, 598 Pa. 611, 959 A.2d 910 (2008) (trial commences, for purposes of the right to a trial by jury, when the trial judge determines that the parties are present and directs them to proceed to opening argument, or to the hearing of any motions that had been reserved for the time of trial, or to some other such first step in the trial).

   Court decisions contain broad language in referring to the areas and matters to be encompassed in determining whether the defendant understands the full impact and consequences of his or her waiver of the right to counsel, but is nevertheless willing to waive that right. The appellate courts require, however, at a minimum, that the judge or issuing authority ask questions to elicit the information set forth in paragraph (A)(2).

   Although it is advisable that the judge or issuing authority conduct the examination of the defendant, the rule does not prevent the attorney for the Commonwealth or an already-appointed or retained defense counsel from conducting all or part of the examination of the defendant as permitted by the judge or issuing authority. See Commonwealth v. McDonough, 571 Pa. 232, 812 A.2d 504 (2002).

   On the issue of waiver of counsel in general, see, e.g., Commonwealth v. Tyler, 468 Pa. 193, 360 A.2d 617 (1976); Commonwealth ex rel. Fairman v. Cavell, 423 Pa. 138, 222 A.2d 722 (1966) (mere execution of a waiver of counsel form, without more, is insufficient to establish a valid waiver); Commonwealth ex rel. McCray v. Rundle, 415 Pa. 65, 202 A.2d 303 (1964); Commonwealth ex rel. O’Lock v. Rundle, 415 Pa. 515, 204 A.2d 439 (1964).

   On the issue of forfeiting the right to representation, see Commonwealth v. Lucarelli, 601 Pa. 185, 971 A.2d 1173 (2009), in which the Court held that Rule 121 and its colloquy requirements do not apply to situations in which forfeiture is found. The Court explained ‘‘where a defendant’s course of conduct demonstrates his or her intention not to seek representation by private counsel, despite having the opportunity and financial wherewithal to do so, a determination that the defendant be required to proceed pro se is mandated because that defendant has forfeited the right to counsel.’’ Id. at 195, 971 A.2d at 1179.

   In referring to summary cases, paragraph (B) refers only to those summary cases in which there exists a right to counsel. See Rule 122.

   While the rule continues to require a written waiver of counsel incorporating the contents specified in paragraph (B), in proceedings before an issuing authority, the form of waiver was deleted in 1985 because it is no longer necessary to control the specific form of written waiver by rule.

   Under paragraph (C) of this rule, the colloquy relating to the defendant’s attempted waiver of counsel must appear on the record. This requirement is not applicable to such waivers in proceedings under paragraph (B), because these proceedings are not in courts of record. However, the absence of such requirement is not intended to be construed as affecting the scope or nature of the inquiry to be made in a particular case.

   It is intended that when the defendant has waived his or her right to counsel before the issuing authority for purposes of the preliminary hearing, such waiver shall not normally act as a waiver of the right to counsel in subsequent critical stages of the proceedings. Therefore, under paragraph (C) it is intended that a further waiver is subsequently to be taken by a judge of the court of common pleas.

   With respect to trials in court cases, when the defendant waives the right to counsel and elects to proceed pro se, it is generally advisable that standby counsel be appointed to attend the proceedings and be available to the defendant for consultation and advice. See Commonwealth v. Africa, 466 Pa. 603, 353 A.2d 855 (1976). This is particularly true in cases expected to be long or complicated, or in which there are multiple defendants. See ABA Standards, The Function of the Trial Judge §  6.7 (Approved Draft 1972). The ability of standby counsel to assume control of the defense will minimize delay and disruption of the proceedings in the event that the defendant’s self-representation terminates, e.g., either because such termination becomes necessary as a result of the defendant’s unruly behavior, or because the defendant seeks to withdraw the waiver and be represented by counsel. With respect to pretrial proceedings or summary case trials it is intended that standby counsel may be appointed at the discretion of the presiding judicial officer.

   Official Note

   Rule 318 adopted October 21, 1977, effective January 1, 1978; amended November 9, 1984, effective January 2, 1985; renumbered Rule 121 and amended March 1, 2000, effective April 1, 2001; amended December 19, 2007, effective February 1, 2008; Comment revised March 29, 2011, effective May 1, 2011.

   Committee Explanatory Reports:

   Final Report explaining the March 1, 2000 reorganization and renumbering of the rules published with the Court’s Order at 30 Pa.B. 1478 (March 18, 2000).

   Final Report explaining the December 19, 2007 changes to paragraph (A) concerning areas of inquiry for waiver colloquy published with the Court’s Order at 38 Pa.B. 62 (January 5, 2008).

   Final Report explaining the March 29, 2011 changes to the Comment adding citations to recent case law concerning right to counsel, time for withdrawal of waiver, and forfeiture of right to counsel published with the Court’s Order at 41 Pa.B. 2000 (April 16, 2011).


   The provisions of this Rule 121 amended December 19, 2007, effective February 1, 2008, 38 Pa.B. 61; amended March 29, 2011, effective May 1, 2011, 41 Pa.B. 1999. Immediately preceding text appears at serial pages (332091) to (332092) and (348259).

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