Report on court-appointed counsel draws mixed response

Issue May 2005

A state commission convened last fall to study the issue of legal representation to the indigent issued a report on its findings early last month.

The committee, called the Commission to Study the Provision of Counsel to Indigent Persons in Massachusetts, came up with a series of recommendations, including implementing pilot projects, authorizing the Committee for Public Counsel Services to hire additional staff members, increasing hourly compensation for private attorneys and amending state statutes.

Prior to issuing the report, members heard testimony from more than 40 witnesses and received and reviewed comments from the legal and judicial communities.

The representation of indigent individuals has long been an important issue to the Massachusetts Bar Association, which in 1994 issued a report calling for significant pay increases for bar advocates. Compensation for bar advocates remains a serious issue for the bar. It reached crisis proportions last year when attorneys had to stop accepting cases because of pay rates that are among the lowest in the country.

In response to the "Report of the Commission to Study the Provision of Counsel to Indigent Persons in Massachusetts" released April 1, MBA President Kathleen M. O'Donnell issued the following statement.

"We commend the commission's finding that it is the commonwealth's constitutional duty to provide counsel for any citizen who needs it. The issue of fair pay for a fair day's work is an absolute necessity to guarantee that we never again find ourselves in a position where attorneys must refuse to do this important work because they cannot afford to.

"As a long-standing supporter of fair pay for bar advocates and of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) in general, the Massachusetts Bar Association applauds the recommendation of increased rates for counsel representing indigent individuals. It is only reasonable to pay private attorneys adequate compensation for the critical work they do on behalf of our most needy citizens. The MBA urges the Legislature to accept the rates recommended, but to immediately provide funding at the rates recommended for fiscal year 2008.

"Other recommendations of the commission warrant further consideration and study. However well-intended, the report raises significant concerns over right to counsel and access to justice, and should not be taken up without a thorough examination of the practicalities of such proposals. Specifically, we have concerns surrounding the Commission's proposal to establish pilot projects to handle cases in District Courts in Bristol and Hampden counties along with increased staff to handle Children and Family and Juvenile law cases.

In the end, while the commission report raises some complex and far-reaching issues, the Massachusetts Bar Association believes that the resolution to these matters should in no way delay immediately increasing the compensation for those private attorneys who serve the public good by providing counsel to those in need. For this, there should be no delay."