Some attorneys in Franklin County no longer are taking court-appointed sexual assault cases, to protest what they call low pay for their services.

Payment for court-appointed cases has not changed for 15 years, and criminal defense attorneys face a struggle to get an increase at a time when there is a shortage of funding.

The Legislature approved increasing reimbursement from $50 to $55 per hour last session, and the change will take effect in July. But attorney Walter Hanstein said the “token increase” will not be enough to cover the cost of defending against serious charges such as sexual assault.

Hanstein said the state will pay less than it should as long as lawyers are willing to accept it. He said sexual-assault cases are infrequent enough that the lawyers’ protest won’t halt court proceedings. However, he said, a shortage of attorneys to defend alleged sex offenders could create enough problems to draw legislative attention.

In a letter to the Franklin County court clerk, Hanstein and attorney David Sanders said they will not handle sexual-assault cases until they are paid $70 per hour for such cases.

The attorneys pointed out that their pay is far less than the $333 an hour the state is paying private attorneys to represent Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials in a whistleblower lawsuit.

“That’s really galling to the people in the trenches,” Hanstein said. “It’s not a criminal case. It’s a civil case. There’s no jail time involved.”

Hanstein said the court-appointed cases make up about 15 percent of his practice. The $50 hourly wage may seem like a lot to outsiders, he said, but it is not directly translated to salary. The money goes toward running the whole practice, from malpractice insurance to copying to office help.

The executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which directs state-paid legal services, said he doesn’t anticipate the attorneys’ efforts resulting in a lack of lawyers for low-income defendants.

John Pelletier said the system is experiencing financial problems and is asking for $860,000 from the Legislature to prevent a shortfall in funding like the one that happened last year.

He said the commission expects to handle around 25,000 cases, which is accounted for in the budget, but is being strained by handling more serious and costly cases than expected.

Pelletier said the Legislature helped when it raised the wage to $55 per hour, but attorneys still operate at a loss if they defend a court-appointed defendant for $55, rather than a privately retained defendant for about $150 an hour.

Since the letter was sent to the clerk’s office March 6, a Livermore Falls man, Casey Braley, was charged with sexually exploiting a minor. The case was refused initially by attorney Allan Lobozzo of Lewiston but was assigned this week to Philip Mohlar of Skowhegan.

Lobozzo said he refused the case after hearing about Hanstein and Sanders no longer taking such cases.