Philadelphia weighs private law firm for some poor

Posted: October 08, 2013

The Nutter administration is poised to pay $9.5 million to hire a private law firm to represent the poor in cases where the public defender has a conflict, despite the protests of the Philadelphia Bar Association, City Council members, and many of the private attorneys who now handle indigent clients.

In recent years, court-appointed attorneys have taken as many as 27,000 cases that the Defender Association of Philadelphia could not.

Typically, less than a fourth of those cases are criminal matters. The majority are dependency cases in Family Court, where attorneys represent parents and children dealing with abuse and neglect and the issues of parental rights.

The clients, regardless of the type of case, often struggle with poverty, mental illness, and drug addiction.

Opponents of the administration's plan raise a host of objections, most centered on the fear that a private law firm would put profits before clients.

Karen Deanna Williams, considered one of the city's deans of dependency work, called the administration's proposal "unseemly."

"How do you take the representation of that vulnerable population and make it a for-profit enterprise?" she asked. "These people are going to be irreparably harmed if this goes through. The system is going to collapse."

Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison, who spent 22 years as a public defender, has been heading the administration's effort. He believes a private law firm would provide better representation and services to the clients.

Gillison, who also serves as Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, answered questions from The Inquirer about the effort last week in writing. He said a private firm would have more resources - such as investigators and social workers on staff - and would be able to give more training and oversight to lawyers.

"The focus is on the provision of these services to enhance the experience to the end-user," he wrote.

No specifics

He declined to answer five of 11 questions posed - many on the specifics of how a private firm would operate - because a contract had not been signed.

Numerous sources, however, said the administration was negotiating a deal with Philadelphia lawyer Daniel-Paul Alva, who has been soliciting attorneys to join his proposed conflict counsel firm.

Alva said last week he could not comment, but he previously confirmed to reporters at the Legal Intelligencer that the administration had orally accepted his bid.

The bid, which The Inquirer obtained, proposes the city pay his firm $9.5 million - $1 million less than the city now pays a year in conflict counsel fees.

In the bid, Alva said the current system was "hopelessly flawed" because it "financially rewards court-appointed attorneys who engage in inefficient and needless litigation."

"What I propose is an investment in Philadelphia's legal future that far exceeds anything to date," Alva wrote, adding that he could "guarantee representation that will set a new standard in client care."

Many lawyers have taken exception to the claim that representation is now lacking, describing a "hard-core" group of civic-minded attorneys who handle the bulk of the work.

"I see nothing but dedicated, committed lawyers," said Mingo Stroeber, a former public defender who currently handles court-appointed adult and juvenile cases. "The vast majority of people who take these cases do it for reasons other than money."

Flawed system

The current system, though, isn't without flaws.

Samuel C. Stretton, one of the city's most respected criminal defense attorneys, described the set-up as "a mess."

In the mid-1990s, Stretton sued the city courts and negotiated pay increases and a guaranteed fee system. Despite several lawsuits since then, pay for the majority of court-appointed work remains at the 1990s level - dependency lawyers, for example, are paid $250 per hearing, with a maximum of $500 in the first year of a case.

In addition to low pay, the money was often slow to arrive. In Pennsylvania, the courts dole out the payments, and the funding comes from the counties. Philadelphia government covers both city and county functions, like maintaining the court system.

In frustration, the First Judicial District last year handed control of the court-appointed system back to the city.

Asked if the city's judges were on board with the administration's plans, Gillison wrote, "once a decision is made to award the contract, specific discussions will take place to ensure everyone's comfort level."

Heavy load

Stretton and other lawyers said a private firm wouldn't be able to cover the amount of work done now by 300 to 350 attorneys on the court-appointment "wheel." Alva has proposed hiring or subcontracting about 75 lawyers.

"I just don't see how the new system can do it, just numbers-wise and economics-wise," Stretton said last week during a break in a homicide trial he was handling for an indigent client. "The city is just doing it so they can save money."

In a February letter to Gillison, the Philadelphia Bar Association also worried that the amount proposed for a private law firm wouldn't be enough to "adequately provide sufficient legal representation of the needy."

The letter raised concerns that a for-profit office would "create a tension pitting the needs of the individual indigent client with the desires . . . to make a profit."

Private cases

Opponents also question whether a for-profit firm, established on the promise of a city contract, should be allowed to handle private clients as well. Alva's bid says attorneys in his firm would "greatly reduce" their current private caseloads but doesn't provide specifics.

"You really can't have part-time lawyers doing dependency work," Stroeber said. "Most of the people doing dependency work don't do anything else because they're in court all day."

Stroeber and other lawyers also feared a private law firm would be allowed to "mine" its indigent clients for other money-making cases, like slip-and-fall and medical-malpractice lawsuits.

They said allowing a law firm to mine clients posed a conflict and brought into question where the focus of the firm's efforts was.

"What are you judged on?" asked lawyer Jason Greshes. "What you did in court or how much extra money you brought in?"

Gillison declined to comment on whether the firm would be allowed to mine its clients.

The concerns of the legal community are scheduled to be aired in a Council hearing Monday.

Councilman Dennis O'Brien, who called for the hearing last month, said "first and foremost," a for-profit firm shouldn't be representing the indigent.

"My suggestion is let's scrap this thing," he said. "Bring your due diligence to the table and let's create a system that makes sense."


BY THE NUMBERS

27,000

Number of court cases assigned to private defenders because of conflicts

$9.5M

Proposed contract amount

$10.5M

Current cost of private defense counsel


tgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-2730

@troyjgraham

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