A city plan to create a special office for conflict counsel — attorneys representing clients who cannot be represented by the Public Defender’s Office — is being met with opposition from several criminal defense lawyers.

“These changes are going to make a bad situation even worse,” said attorney Michael Coard. “The reason I say that is that when you talk about justice in the American courtroom, the problem is that you get only as much justice as you can afford.”

City officials contend the proposal would aid poor defendants by providing legal representation and related services from one office.

Coard disagrees, saying that it boils down to money.

“Any lawyer who is qualified, a veteran attorney, is not going accept the minimum and meager wages, salaries and fees that the city is talking about paying,” he said, adding that he thought the idea was part of a plan to save money. “You’re talking about rookie lawyers, and you can imagine what is going to happen.”

One Philadelphia attorney, Sam Stretton, has threatened to sue over the proposed changes. He did not return phone calls Friday. He told WHYY that the move would hurt defendants.

“The mayor’s office is doing this in an attempt to save money and have a cheaper system,” Stretton said. “It’s just not going to work and it’s just going to have a terrible impact on the right to counsel.”

Ronald Greenblatt, who heads up the Philadelphia chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also failed to return the Tribune’s phone calls.

The Philadelphia Bar Association has not taken an official position.

“The bar association has not taken an official position,” said Chancellor Kathleen Wilkinson. “However, we are very concerned, and we certainly want to see that litigants are afforded quality representation.”

Association members, including members of the Barrister’s Association of Philadelphia, will meet next week with the administration to discuss the proposed changes. Neither the president nor past president of the Barrister’s Association responded to the Tribune’s request for comment.

Wilkinson said it was too early to discuss the bar association’s input, but that she hoped to discuss all facets of the proposal with city officials.

“My impression is that the city is trying to do the right thing,” Wilkinson said. “Trying to provide representation with litigants in cases where there is a conflict with the Public Defenders’ Office. The important thing here is that we’re going to sit down and have input.”

Earlier this week, Everett Gillison, Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief of staff, outlined proposed changes to the way the city deals with poor defendants who need an attorney outside the public defender’s office.

Administration officials contend the changes would streamline and improve legal services for the poor. Gillison said the administration hoped to provide defendants with “wrap-around services” that are currently unavailable. By establishing a separate office of conflicts counsel, the city will also be able to roll other services — things like investigative work, drug, mental, social and other services — into one office, he said.

Typically the court appoints conflicts counsel in multi-defendant cases where the interests of all defendants cannot be represented by a single attorney, and defendants cannot afford their own lawyers. Those attorneys are paid a flat fee of $350 in misdemeanor cases and $600 in felony cases. In some cases they may get other needed services too. But, in others they may not.

In fiscal 2011 there were 22,441 private attorneys appointed as conflicts counsel. The city usually spends between $8 and $10 million a year in attorneys’ fees, according to Gillison.

He declined to estimate how much might be spent with a separate office and new procedures. Gillison did say that he expected some cost savings but that it was unclear how much the city might save.

“If it’s done right perhaps there might be,” he said. “But, the main motivation here is to raise the level of investment in this area so that ultimately we can have it done more efficiently.

With a specially established office, the city could rely on salaried attorneys, investigators and social workers on staff.

“We’d be able to have a comprehensive, wholistic approach to a defense,” he said, adding that in many cases private attorneys would still be needed.

Coard suggested that if the city really wanted to help defendants, it should create a fund, equal in size to the budget of the District Attorney’s Office, and the additional resources at its disposal and dedicate that money to public defenders and conflicts counsel.

“Now you have not only equality, but equity,” he said.

 

Contact staff writer Eric Mayes at (215) 893-5742 or emayes@phillytrib.com.

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