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OC Bar Association seeks coordinator for assigned counsel

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 28 February 2014 at 12:00 am

ALBION – When a resident can’t afford an attorney for criminal or family court, a judge in the case will often pick an attorney from the 50 on the county’s assigned counsel roster.

Judges need to make sure the attorneys don’t have any conflicts or past dealings with others involved in the case. Judges sometimes scramble, making several phone calls to find an attorney for a resident. Sometimes a judge will pick an attorney who happens to be in the courtroom.

The Orleans County Bar Association would like to see the county approve a part-time assigned counsel coordinator who would work with judges to find attorneys for cases. The coordinator could also ensure the residents meet income qualifications for indigent defense, and the coordinator could assess the quality of legal services in each case.

The coordinator of the program would make sure the cases are also rotated among the attorneys and that they follow consistent billing and reimbursement practices, said Shirley Gorman, chairwoman of the Bar Association’s assigned counsel committee.

The county spends about $600,000 a year through the public defender’s office and for assigned counsel, said Public Defender Sanford Church.

The state pays about $110,000 to $120,000 towards the cost. The state designates how its money should be used. A coordinator for assigned counsel is one of the functions that would be funded through the state Office of Indigent Legal Services. It has offered to pay for the coordinator for at least three years, Church said, as long as the County Legislature approves the position.

Church and Gorman presented the plan for a coordinator on Wednesday to the County Legislature, which said it would likely support the plan for more oversight with assigned counsel. Church and Gorman said the plan would match attorneys with clients sooner, and speed up the time their cases are in the court system.

The coordinator could also try to match the expertise of attorneys with the difficulty of each case, Gorman said.

“This is the best way to provide representation right away,” she told county legislators. “You have attorneys who show up right away who are prepared.”