22 May 2004

Indigent Representation Fees

Yet another article telling the Legislature how broke it has left the system in Virginia:
Court-appointed lawyers still represent the bulk of indigent defendants in criminal cases in the commonwealth, and state payments to them remain so low that nobody can make a living handling court-appointed work with the diligence that lawyers should show on behalf of every client. Crimes that can land a defendant in prison for 20 years, for example, can net an attorney no more than $395 -- no matter how hard a lawyer works or how long a trial goes. The state pays on average only $12 more for a criminal defense than it did three decades ago. No reform that fails to lift these ludicrously low fee caps will give Virginia the system it needs to meet its constitutional obligations and protect people from wrongful convictions.
The way it was explained to me when I first started, if you practice indigent defense criminal law and want to make enough money to pay your bills you need to take mostly drug, bad check, larceny cases, and their ilk. They are usually fairly simple charges wherein you can do a competent job and not go broke. The cases which need to be avoided are violent assault charges, robberies, minor felonies with mandatory prison time (i.e. exile), &cetera - at least if it is a not guilty plea. The time in prepping a good defense and trying the case will most often make it a money loser. Taking a jury trial when there are less than 2 or 3 felonies is also a money loser. Finally, you should never, ever take a non-capital murder trial unless you have a large war chest so that you can absorb the massive losses that occur when you get past the cap of $1096.

I must say that I've never turned down a court case because I thought it would be a money loser. And there are plenty of prosecutors out there who can testify that I've taken a number of juries to trial wherein there was only one felony charge ($395) and even only one misdemeanor ($148). The only thing I think I would turn down because of monetary concerns would be a non-capital murder. I just don't have the money to block aside adequate time; I couldn't take the loss.

The fee caps have two major effects. One one hand, they mean that those who do court appointed work must churn cases at a quick pace. If you don't churn enough cases you end up in a situation where you cannot even afford a secretary and have to pick and choose which bills you pay at the end of the month. On the other hand, lawyers who can do so quite often stop taking court appointed cases from the Commonwealth. I know several lawyers who fall into either category.

I also know that I have often considered how I might be able to grow my practice and all of them involve leaving behind court appointments from Virginia. I've often thought about how I could grow (or more accurately change) my practice into some area such as wills, business law, real estate, &cetera. When I started taking federal appointments and realized how very much more they paid I had thoughts of switching over completely. This wasn't because I preferred federal practice; in fact, I very much enjoy my State practice - I just had visions of having enough money to at least get a secretary. Still, after talking to some of the old salts I realized that federal appointments are not constant (particularly since the public defender office opened). So the majority of my work remains court-appointed from the Commonwealth. It is, for me, kind of a "don't throw me into that briar patch" situation but if something came along which paid decent . . .

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