News Release

New York lawyers’ group has standing to challenge assigned counsel rates

Washington, DC (2001, exact date unknown) -- A decision Wednesday by a trial court in New York constitutes a significant victory in the fight to improve the quality of representation for poor defendants in New York State, according to Marvin Schechter, co-chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Indigent Defense Committee.

Pro bono lawyers at Davis, Polk & Wardwell brought the suit on behalf of the New York County Lawyers’ Association (NYCLA).

Justice Lucindo Suarez rejected the State’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, ruling that NYCLA, plaintiff in the case, has standing to pursue its claim that fees currently paid to court-appointed counsel in New York are constitutionally inadequate.

Schechter, a criminal defense attorney in New York City, said today: “The court’s decision recognizes the urgency of addressing the system of indigent defense in New York. The Governor’s and legislature’s unwillingness, year after year, to provide adequate funding for defenders of the poor has resulted in a crisis, evidenced in recent weeks by the inability of judges to find enough lawyers who are willing to take court-appointed cases. Now NYCLA can address the heart of this problem and ask for desperately-needed relief.”

The underfunding of indigent defense is a national problem, according to NACDL President Edward Mallett, who practices criminal defense in Houston. “In most states across the country, we are seeing public defender and assigned counsel programs laboring under intolerable caseloads with shockingly low compensation. These defense attorneys simply do not have the resources to provide their clients with the kind and quality of representation required by our Constitution. As a result, poor people receive a different kind of justice — something that, as a nation, we should be ashamed of.”

Mallett points out that in his own state of Texas, recent reports have shown serious flaws in the system of representation for the poor. Likewise, Mallett points to Virginia, where non-waivable caps on attorneys fees have been attacked as too low to ensure effective representation.

On Wednesday, Newsday reported that the average cost of running a small law office in New York State is $34.75 per hour. Currently, attorneys assigned to represent poor defendants in New York are paid $40 hourly for the time they spend in court and $25 hourly for their work on cases outside the courtroom. With Justice Suarez’s decision, the NYCLA lawsuit will now go forward on the theory that this equation creates a system which denies constitutionally-required effective assistance of counsel to countless children and adults.

“Those most harmed by the current system -- children and poor adults -- may not be able to raise objections to systemic inadequacies, and thus courts must recognize the crucial role of professional legal panels like NYCLA and NACDL stepping in to protect the rights of poor individuals,” said Schechter. 

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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.