Thursday, April 17, 2014
By BETTY ADAMS Kennebec Journal
AUGUSTA - Lawyers are scheduled to get a raise for work representing indigent clients in state court proceedings, but the start date and even the amount remain fuzzy because of state budget woes.
The funding shortage has raised concerns that there won't be enough qualified lawyers who are paid through a state program to represent indigent defendants -- people facing jail time who can't afford a lawyer.
The Commission on Indigent Legal Services, an independent board charged with setting fees for the work, recently approved a $70 per hour fee to begin July 1 and another increase to $75 an hour a year later.
The 465 lawyers now registered with the commission receive $50 per hour, a rate set in 1999. In contrast, the hourly rate for work as a federal public defender is $125 an hour.
Just the fact that the commission agreed to begin the rule-making process to set an appropriate rate brought Portland lawyer Robert Ruffner back on the roster after a five-month hiatus. He had previously withdrawn from all his court-appointed cases.
"I fully anticipate that the commission will stick with the rate structure it has adopted no matter what the outcome of the budget," Ruffner said. "Determining a fair and appropriate rate is independent of the budget."
The low hourly pay partially pushed Sarah Churchill out of indigent legal work after 10 years and into the private firm of Nichols & Webb last November.
"Part of the reason for the transition was the pace I was having to go at to make a reasonable living," she said.
While an increase in the rate won't bring her back, it will help those lawyers who remain.
"You could make more money doing fewer cases if there was a reasonable rate," Churchill said. "Therefore the quality would be better because your attention is less divided."
Churchill estimated that an hourly rate for private defense attorneys would be $225 to $250 per hour, although many attorneys charge a flat fee for certain cases.
A separate bill in the Legislature proposes to start a $70 an hour wage on Oct. 1 and increase it to $75 an hour on July 1, 2015.
The governor's budget proposes a $55 an hour rate -- a 10 percent increase -- in the 2014-2015 budget.
Lawyer pay and a number of other provisions in the governor's biennial budget affecting the judicial system will be discussed beginning at 1 p.m. Friday in the Appropriations Committee hearing room in the State House.
Rep. Charles R. Priest, D-Brunswick, introduced the bill to fund the $70 hourly rate beginning Oct. 1.
Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at: