Court-Assigned Lawyers Urge County To Up Fees

Court-assigned lawyers urge county to up fees – Stagnant pay drains pool for cases, some say

Detroit News, The (MI) – Friday, September 8, 2006
Author: The Detroit News; Maureen Feighan

PONTIAC — Frustrated by low pay rates they say make it harder to adequately represent poorer clients, court-appointed attorneys in Oakland County are pushing for a raise, even though county officials say this year’s budget is already set.

Statistics show fees for court-appointed lawyers who represent clients too poor to hire their own counsel in Oakland County have gone up 11 percent since 1995, while prosecutors’ pay rates have gone up nearly 48 percent. The last raise for defense lawyers, 0.8 percent, was in 1999.

R. Diana Bare, former head of the Oakland County Bar Association’s criminal law committee who addressed the board of commissioners last month, said the issue isn’t about making money; it’s about parity. Without adequate fees, more and more lawyers can’t afford to take appointments. Clients are left with less experienced attorneys, which could lead to longer jail sentences and a higher bill for taxpayers.

“This goes back to the right that every one of us has and that is the right to competent counsel,” said Bare, an Ortonville lawyer who has done court-appointed work for 16 years.

But for now, the current fee structure — which pays lawyers per court hearing, meaning per arraignment, sentencing, jail visit, and so on — will stay as is.

The county’s 2007 budget, which the board of commissioners will vote on later this month before it goes into effect Oct. 1, includes no increase. Circuit court officials had proposed an 11 percent raise — boosting the court-appointed attorney budget by $565,000 — but it was cut during the budget process.

“There are a number of budget challenges facing Oakland County,” said Circuit Court Administrator Kevin Oeffner, who said court officials requested a raise last year too that was also cut.

“And the funds couldn’t be found to cover the additional requested appropriation … It’s just a really difficult situation that the county is in.”

Chief Judge Wendy Potts, who supports a raise, said “it’s a matter of priorities.”

The county executive “has to look at the big picture and unfortunately defense attorneys are caught in this. (But) I think we’re still getting very quality representation for our defendants. I continue to be amazed that these attorneys have stuck with it and continue to want appointments.”

Oakland Circuit Court has approximately 225 lawyers who take adult criminal appointments. Appointments, also made in family and juvenile cases, are based on experience.

John F. Schaefer, head of the Oakland County Bar Association, thinks Michigan could do more to cover the cost of hiring court-appointed lawyers.

“Michigan is one of nine states where the state contributes nothing to a defense fund for indigent clients,” he said.

“Forty-one states provide funding for this. That would be a good place to start.”

Bare, meanwhile, isn’t giving up. She plans to approach the county again next spring when planning begins for the 2008 budget and will keep taking appointments.

“This may sound really saccharine sweet but I believe in what I do,” she said.

Court-appointed fees

  • District court hearing for felony less than life: $300
  • Circuit court hearing for felony less than life: $410
  • Jail visit for less than life sentence crimes: $65

Caption: Defense attorney R. Diana Bare supports better rates for Oakland County’s court-appointed lawyers. “This goes back to the right that every one of us has and that is the right to competent counsel,” she said.