Washington, DC (December 8, 2000) -- Criminal defense attorneys appointed by the federal courts to represent indigent defendants under the Criminal Justice Act can now expect to receive more equitable and timely payment for their efforts.
Since November 13, a recent amendment to the Act approved by Congress raises the allowable fee for representation in felony cases from $3500 to $5200, with proportional increases for other categories, including misdemeanors and appeals. Felony habeas corpus cases have been reclassified under the amendment so as to allow them to be compensated at the same rate as federal district court felonies, up from the previous ceiling of $750.
“At long last, we can now get paid for almost 100 hours of work when it’s really needed in a case,” said David Beneman, the CJA Resource Counsel for the state of Maine.
“Before, many cases required far more time to adequately represent a defendant than the caps allowed, so we had to repeatedly petition courts for fair payment," Beneman said. "Judges varied widely in how they wanted us to seek payment above the ceilings, and how much--or even whether--they would pay.
"Now, we can still petition for payment for time expended beyond the new caps, but the higher threshold should at least mean fairer payment, faster and more often.”
Further, Congressional budget action during this current lame-duck session is expected to raise the hourly CJA rate from $50 to $55 for out-of-court time and from $70 to $75 for courtroom time. Such a move has the strong support of the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, among others.
A consistent rate of $75 an hour, for work performed both in and out of court, was initially sought, with vigorous support from Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Department of Justice, NACDL, ABA, and the Federal Judges Association. That increase did not make it out of committee, leading to the more modest $5 hourly increase on the table.
"Strangely, Congress has remained an obstacle to full and fair payment for CJA counsel," said Edward Mallett, president of NACDL. "The current rates, adjusted for inflation, actually amount to a decrease of more than 40 percent from the original rates of $40 and $60 approved back in 1984. Adjusted for inflation, the current rate should be closer to $110 an hour."
A recent survey by Altman Weil, Inc., a research firm serving the legal industry, indicated that, nationally, average hourly billing rates for private law firms are $206 for partners and $145 for associates. A 1997 Altman Weil study indicates that, at a ratio of six out-of-court hours to one courtroom hour, average CJA pay was $53 per hour, while the average overhead cost alone for law firm associates was $58 per hour.
"And that's just the overhead," said Mallett. "A lawyer should be able to earn a living wage on top of his expenses. But Congress doesn't seem to care much about the legal defense of those people in America who can least afford representation. As a matter of fact, of all Americans, these are the people who can least afford to be not represented, or not effectively represented, as can happen when their lawyers are inadequately paid for services duly rendered."
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