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The months following the Contra Costa County Superior Court’s controversial decision to switch dependency-counsel providers have been a bumpy ride. Ever since Presiding Judge Terence Bruiniers announced in late March that the nonprofit Legal Aid Society of Santa Clara County would take over from the public defender’s office and the conflicts panel of the local bar association, protests from both groups have been filed with the superior court, rejected, and appealed in the same court, where they will presumably be rejected again. LAS began accepting new cases in its temporary Martinez offices on June 1, in accordance with its $4 million contract. Now, the question is whether all existing cases will follow. What started as a united opposition of about 40 panel attorneys � pledging not to negotiate individually and relinquish their cases to LAS � has ended up a fractured front: 18 attorneys have continued to hold onto their cases, while more than a dozen have been hired by, or have agreed to contract with, LAS. A handful voluntarily withdrew from the panel. On Friday, the group of attorneys still holding onto their cases settled on an agreement with Presiding Judge Bruiniers, who agreed to let them keep their existing cases. But they will be paid at roughly the same rate that the LAS conflict panel attorneys would be paid: $50 for every case per month. Dependency cases involve abused or neglected children, and attorneys under the county’s contract can represent children, or parents � or both. “I think it is the best we could expect under the circumstances,” said Pleasant Hill dependency attorney Barbara Suskind, adding that the work involved in a dependency case can vary widely, depending on the stage of the case. For example, Suskind explained, a case can go for eight to 10 months without requiring anything from the attorney. Those cases offset the bill for the cases that do require a lot of work, she said. Still, the new pay scale would be less then the current contract rate of $75 per hour, Suskind said. Contra Costa County Public Defender David Coleman III, meanwhile, has stated that his office has a legal and ethical obligation to continue representing its clients, and will not give up existing cases. According to an April opinion written by Coleman’s attorney, Mark Tuft at San Francisco’s Cooper, White & Cooper, and subsequently relayed to the court by the public defender, the court cannot unilaterally terminate an existing attorney-client relationship in a dependency case against the client’s wishes unless there is a legitimate reason, such as an attorney’s incompetence. Bruiniers said the letter is one factor he will consider, but didn’t seem to accept the opinion in the letter. “I’m not sure we quite agree with the conclusion or at least the scope of the opinion,” he said. If the court and the public defender’s office continue to butt heads on transferring cases, they could end up litigating the issue of representation for each case. Both Coleman and Bruiniers, however, say they hope it doesn’t come to that. Bruiniers wouldn’t say Monday whether he would make the public defender’s office an offer similar to the agreement reached with the panel attorneys. He said he was still in the process of working out an arrangement with Coleman. But the private bar’s position was different from the public defender’s, Bruiniers said, because those attorneys had established one-on-one relationships in many cases “that would justify allowing them to continue” representing their clients. Typically, several public defenders may represent one client, he said. “The issue is whether there is an established attorney-client relationship or not,” he said. “That will vary from case to case.” Meanwhile, Coleman’s fight for public records documenting the court’s selection process for LAS remains unsettled. Early this month, Coleman filed a petition for a writ of mandate in Contra Costa County Superior Court, seeking to compel the court to release public records documenting the proceedings, as well as the resumes of the LAS dependency attorneys. Bruiniers declined to comment on the matter because it is pending litigation, but on Friday, LAS’ coordinating attorney, Stephen Avilla, said his organization decided to hand over the resumes to the court, and Coleman is welcome to see them. “We decided to end the nonsense,” Avilla said. “My position is it’s still no one’s business, but we’re going to release the resumes.” And, responding to charges that the nonprofit would underpay those attorneys because of its lower bid for the contract, Avilla said his organization will pay them $100,000 annually for a caseload that won’t exceed 175 cases a year.

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