Nov 30, 2018 — Legal defense for the poor is a hot-button issue in New York State. Lately, the state’s been under pressure to give counties more support with this mandate and help pay for services like assigned counsel.
Private lawyers are often hired to help needy clients and in turn, fill a big gap in the North Country’s justice system. But local governments are struggling to keep the program afloat.
Unexpected costs — and a wider net
Assigned counsel is the last resort for low-income people navigating the court system.
People who can’t afford a lawyer on their own are still entitled to legal help, and by law, counties are required to provide it. Private attorneys are called when public defenders have a conflict of interest and can’t take a case.
As the assigned counsel coordinator for St. Lawrence County, it’s Scott Goldie’s job to locate these outside attorneys — but they’ve become tougher to pin down. “A lot of times the situation is, we can’t find anybody,” Goldie said.
At least, no one local. Goldie said there’s been a dropoff in the number of local attorneys who are willing to accept assigned cases. Attorneys are now hired from as far way as Utica and Plattsburgh, which is a four-hour round trip. Sometimes, a court appearance is just a couple minutes long. It can wind up costing the county as much as $350 to cover a single court date.
This month, St. Lawrence County lawmakers agreed to set aside an additional $300,000 for assigned counsel services in family and criminal court on top of the existing budget.
“The additional costs to the program are that we are having to find people from far, far away,” Goldie said, adding that the caseload has stayed relatively flat over the years. “We are spending a significant amount of time on their travel.”
Is the fix…a pay raise?
St. Lawrence County isn’t the only one with this problem, either. According to the Sun Community News, Essex County’s assigned counsel budget more than doubled over the last decade. County officials said that was mostly due to travel expenses.
So, why does this keep happening? Where did all the local lawyers go?
The New York State Bar Association says it has a lot to do with money — specifically, how much assigned counsel gets paid. The rate is set by the state at $60 an hour for family and misdemeanor cases and $75 an hour for felonies.
That’s far less than what private attorneys get paid. Bar association president Michael Miller said the assigned counsel rates haven’t changed since 2004. “So it’s been 14 years since these attorneys who are really doing this work on the front line of the justice system got an increase in compensation,” Miller said.
Both Miller and Goldie believe that might be driving people away from taking on low-income clients.
New York State has already committed to spending $250 million on indigent defense over the next few years. In 2019, Miller said the bar association is planning to lobby the state legislature to raise the pay for assigned counsel — and to provide more money to help counties make up the difference.