As the payment of court-appointed counsel fees transitions from the First Judicial District to Philadelphia’s executive branch, private attorneys who represent indigent clients in criminal and family dependency cases said they have been experiencing delays in getting paid.
But some attorneys said the city of Philadelphia started cutting checks Thursday.
Some attorneys told The Legal they had bills that dated as far back as March and April. One attorney who did not want to be named out of fear he might lose court appointments said he knows people who were owed $10,000 or $15,000, and he is owed about the same.
Mayor Michael A. Nutter’s administration agreed to the FJD’s request to strip out of the court budget the fees paid to court-appointed private attorneys, which started July 1 with the new fiscal year, The Legal previously reported. Both sides agreed the FJD will continue processing the fee petitions before sending on the vouchers to the city for payment.
“According to the city’s accounting, any issues with payments due to the transition have been remedied,” said Katie Martin, deputy press secretary for the administration, in an email. “All payments will go out in a speedy manner moving forward.”
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge John W. Herron, administrative judge of the trial division, said “it’s distressing and disturbing that there wasn’t a transition that we all can be proud of.”
FJD Court Administrator David Wasson said the city’s budget director reported to him that “checks went out for everything” Thursday.
Because there was a change in the “agencies for the approval authority to pay the vouchers as of July 1, it seems there was some kind of logistical issue,” Wasson said.
Kevin T. Birley, a criminal defense attorney who was working on the issue, said in an email provided to The Legal that the Managing Director’s Office is now in charge of writing the checks and the deputy managing director in charge of paying court-appointed vouchers was only told a month into the new fiscal year of that new responsibility. Birley wrote that it would take a couple of weeks for a new system to be put into place.
“The deputy managing director’s office has responded quickly to my inquiries, and checks appeared over the weekend,” Birley said in an e-mail sent Monday. “I have been impressed by Deputy Managing Director David Torres’s efficiency and concern for our problem. I am convinced he will do his best to resolve the delinquency.”
While Herron said counsel fees were $116,754 more for the 2011-12 fiscal year than the budgeted amount of $8,517,529, the court made up the difference within its own budget by cutting expenditures elsewhere.
“The sad history here from the court perspective is the funding has never been adequate and the court has always had a shortfall, so this past year’s experience is no different than any other year,” Herron said.
Troy Wilson, an attorney who has been active on the issue of counsel fees for the last several years, said it is not unusual to have delays in payment of the court-appointed counsel fees.
But Wilson said “it’s really frustrating knowing in the back of your mind you’re doing your job and I might not be paid for this every month. It’s … a scary thing when it’s your livelihood.”
There is a threefold problem because there is not enough money on a consistent basis for funding the fees, the money available is not sufficient pay for lawyers, and the money that is available is not given out as expeditiously as possible, Wilson said.
Court-appointed attorneys have been saying for several years that the fees under the system are too low.
Samuel C. Stretton, an attorney who also has been active on the issue of counsel fees, said “they’ve got to pay everyone more but they’ve at least got to pay what they owe now.”
Stretton is a columnist for The Legal .
When Herron reported that the city had agreed to strip the counsel fees out of the court’s budget, he said the FJD wanted the fees out of its budget because paying for lawyers for indigent defendants is an obligation of the executive branch; because the American Bar Association has opined that it’s a conflict of interest for the court to both appoint and pay counsel; and because the counsel fees budget line has always had a shortfall, and the court has had to make up the shortfall from its own budget.
The midyear appropriations from City Council to make up those shortfalls were never enough, Herron added.