Agreement near on providing legal counsel to Philly's poor

Posted: August 16, 2014

After last year's showdown between City Council and Mayor Nutter over the best way to provide lawyers to the city's indigent defendants, the two sides are now talking and hope they can come to an agreement soon.

Councilman Dennis O'Brien, who last year led the charge against an administration effort to hire a private law firm to represent the poor in so-called conflict cases, recently won a federal grant to study the issue.

The Sixth Amendment Center, a Boston-based nonprofit, received the grant money and plans to issue a report on the city's best options by October or earlier, executive director David J. Carroll said.

"Hopefully it will provide a framework for consensus . . . that will serve as a template, a good model beyond Philadelphia," O'Brien said recently.

The administration, while not willing to stand "arm in arm" with O'Brien in support of the study, nonetheless is cooperating, said Michael Resnick, director of public safety.

"We want to take it seriously," he said. "It's a Department of Justice grant, and the Sixth Amendment Center is well-respected."

The administration has been conducting its own process to determine "the best way to go forward," he said, but has been doing so in consultation with O'Brien's office.

Philadelphia courts now turn to private lawyers to represent the poor in cases in which the public defender has a conflict - in cases with multiple defendants, for example, the public defender can handle only one client.

Most commonly, conflict counsel is needed in Family Court, where multiple parents and children may need lawyers for the same matter.

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

One option, Carroll said, could be for the public defender to create a new unit, walled off from the rest of the organization, to handle conflict cases.

"It's a model that can work," he said. "Is it appropriate for here? I'm not sure yet."

The current system has long been plagued by low pay, often slow in arriving.

Lawyer Samuel C. Stretton last sued and negotiated for pay increases for court-appointed lawyers in the mid-1990s.

In frustration, the First Judicial District in 2012 turned control of the court-appointed system over to the city, which provides the funding.

The administration responded by proposing to hire a private law firm for $9.5 million to handle conflict cases. That idea sparked concern in many corners of the legal community that a private firm would put profits before clients.

The administration eventually backed off that plan, but not before O'Brien proposed a ballot initiative, approved by voters in May, that weakened the mayor's ability to award contracts for providing counsel for the indigent.

Carroll said he did not review the administration's previous proposal but wouldn't rule out privatization.

Different jurisdictions across the country use different systems for supplying conflict counsel, including some through private contracts.

"You need to take into account the culture and unique histories that have brought the systems to where they are," Carroll said. "What's important is the adherence to certain standards, whatever the model is."

215-854-2730 @troyjgraham

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