AUGUSTA — Court-appointed defense lawyers blame low pay and uncooperative state courts for the failure of a system aimed at providing the poor with legal representation.

At a hearing Thursday held by the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, defense lawyers warned that unless hourly rates paid to court-appointed lawyers were boosted and courts were more flexible about filing motions and accommodating lawyers’ schedules, there would be no lawyers willing to be assigned to take those cases.

Lewiston criminal defense lawyer James Howaniec appears Thursday by videoconference at an Augusta hearing on the Maine Commission for Indigent Legal Services. Christopher Williams screenshot

James Howaniec, a Lewiston criminal defense lawyer with more than three decades of experience, told the commission the system was “in complete freefall” in Androscoggin, Cumberland and Oxford counties, where he spends most of his time in court.

“So, we seem to be in complete crisis,” he said.

Howaniec, who is juggling more than 100 felony cases, said he cannot continue to be assigned court-appointed clients with such a slow-moving backlog and dearth of lawyers willing to be appointed.

“We just don’t have enough lawyers left,” he said. “The numbers just aren’t adding up. It’s finally coming home to roost.”

Howaniec said the indigent legal system ran into problems with underfunding overworked lawyers in the past, but has grown worse over the years and has now reached the point where many attorneys have removed themselves from the roster of those willing to take court-appointed clients.

That roster has shrunken by about half over the past three years, he said.

Reforms are urgently needed, he and other lawyers said at the Thursday videoconference forum held at the State House in Augusta, where more than 130 participants had logged on, including some prosecutors, judges and lawmakers.

Howaniec recommended changes to the system, including tiered levels of pay for various types of defense work, where trial time and felonies would be billed at higher rates than representation of misdemeanor defendants.

Less-experienced lawyers should be mentored by veteran attorneys and gain experience by pairing up with them, he said.

Howaniec suggested paying lawyers $120 an hour for homicide cases, $100 an hour for jury trials and $80 an hour for all other events.

The Maine Commission for Indigent Legal Services holds a hearing by videoconference Thursday at the State House in Augusta to hear comments about the state’s court-appointed lawyer system. Christopher Williams screenshot

All rostered lawyers’ hourly rate was raised in July to $80 from $60 an hour.

Lewiston criminal defense lawyer Donald Hornblower echoed Howaniec’s sentiments, calling for more lawyers and greater pay.

“We’re the canaries in the coal mine,” he said, warning of impending “disaster.”

Howaniec said the balance of power in the courtroom is tilted to favor prosecutors. Mandatory minimum sentences should be abolished in an effort to get cases moving through the system more quickly and free up jails that are clogged with defendants, who often spend more time behind bars than their eventual sentences require.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened that scenario, he said. Incarcerated defendants are not able to get the services they need, noting one client who could not get treatment for months for a yeast infection while in jail.

“It’s a human rights crisis,” he said.

Howaniec said the indigent legal services system needs to attract more young lawyers, who now gravitate toward jobs at district attorneys’ offices, where they can collect a salary and benefits and are able to have their student loans forgiven.

Several defense lawyers spoke Thursday of the need to level the playing field with prosecutors’ offices.

Taylor Kilgore of Turner pointed to all the perks covered by the state that she must pay out of pocket.

“They have access to state cellphones that they don’t have to pay the bills for,” Kilgore said. “They have access to research services. We have to pay for those. They don’t need to pay for their own equipment. We’re buying our own computers or printers, our own paper, our own envelopes. They have access to health insurance, paid by their employer. We don’t get that.”

Several lawyers said they had to lay off paralegals and associates, because the hourly rate paid by the state for indigent legal services was not enough to cover the costs.

Some of the lawyers appealed to the commissioners to allow billing separately for those services. Others recommended state-funded satellite offices, where rostered lawyers could find paralegal help and technology to aid them in their court-appointed cases.

Maine is the only state that does not have a public defender office that represents indigent defendants and, instead, pays private lawyers.

Darrick X. Banda, an Augusta criminal defense lawyer, said, “The finger needs to be pointed directly at the court for some of these systematic problems in being really … hostile to the business and the practice of law.”

Banda and other lawyers said Thursday many of the state courts observe disparate practices, or have adopted varied policies when it comes to scheduling, especially since the pandemic has prompted most courts to enable hearings to be held by videoconference.

But some judges will insist on lawyers participating in person or are unwilling to grant continuances, Banda said.

That is why he has taken his name off the rosters of many of the state’s courts, he said.

Another point of contention is the requirement by state courts that lawyers file motions in person with the courts.

Lewiston lawyer Daniel Dube called on the courts to allow filing by email or an initiate an e-filing system, comparing the current requirement to the “horse-and-buggy days.”

In a recent case, Dube said he had to drive 2½ hours to a courthouse, following a Zoom videoconference hearing, to deliver documents he should have been allowed to scan and email.

“That’s the kind of thing that is occurring regularly,” he said.

In another recent case, Dube said he had to overnight mail documents containing a motion to a court at a cost of $23. He said he was paid $24 for the filing.

Many lawyers said they only keep their names on the courts’ rosters out of a sense of duty, but cannot afford the price any longer, not only to their pocketbooks, but to their emotional health.

Legislative Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, a member of the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary, who represents Friendship and surrounding towns, weighed in Thursday, saying, “We came up so far short in the past year of enacting reforms that were necessary to improve the situation.”

He apologized his committee had not done more to meet the needs of the court-appointed lawyers.

“I’ve heard everything you said today,” he said. “I agree with 99% of it.”

Evangelos said the state has the money needed to shore up the system.

“As far as the money part of compensation goes, you can fix this. This is not big money,” he said. “The problem is the systemic bias that exists in our justice system that filters down to discriminate against poor people. And that’s a truth. Caseloads are beyond manageable. We need a more-flexible billing system. Every day in this job is a living hell.”


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