Local defense attorneys critical of decision to suspend payments for defending indigent clients

York County defense attorneys are reacting angrily to the prospect of not getting paid to represent indigent clients.

The S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense has suspended the payment of legal fees in all non-capital criminal and civil cases, a decision blamed on cuts to the state budget.

State money was set to run out on Wednesday, meaning most court-appointed lawyers won't get paid for at least three months.

The commission will meet again in 90 days to determine whether payments can resume. It's a stopgap measure in a tough budget year, said Harry Dest, the public defender in the 16th Circuit, which includes York and Union counties.

Dest is chairman of the commission that voted for the change.

"It's not a permanent thing," he said. "I understand why people are upset. We're just as worried about it as anybody else -- that's why we issued a 90-day moratorium.

"Hopefully, we can resume payment as quickly as possible."

Lawyers: System is jeopardized

Court-appointed lawyers represent poor criminal defendants in cases that can't be handled by public defenders and in a type of appeal known as post-conviction relief. They often are appointed in child abuse and neglect cases in family court.

"You've got a program that needs to be provided so the judicial system can continue to function," said Leland Greeley, who practices criminal law in Rock Hill. "And yet, the state doesn't intend to fund it. I don't know where that leaves the system."

Dest's explanation did little to satisfy Rock Hill attorney Jim Morton, whose office has handled a number of high-profile criminal cases, including many in which clients couldn't afford to pay.

"I don't care if it's for one day," Morton said. "We're being asked to take a 100 percent cut when no one else is being forced to take a reduction at all -- prosecutors, judges, anybody else in the judicial system," he said. "Why does it fall on us?"

Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal told The (Columbia) State this week that she is sympathetic to the lawyers' concerns. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that criminal defendants facing jail or prison time must have lawyers, even if they can't afford one, she said.

Attorneys who refuse those appointments "risk having those criminal convictions reversed because defendants were not provided with counsel," she said.

'Quality of justice' questioned

Court-appointed lawyers in criminal cases earn $40 an hour for out-of-court work and $60 an hour when in court, said Patton Adams, executive director of the Commission on Indigent Defense.

Those rates already are low enough that lawyers barely can afford to pay for paralegals, transportation and related costs, said attorney Jim Boyd, York County's first public defender.

"There's a danger the attorney won't be able to put the time into the case," Boyd said. "I think it can affect the quality of justice. Obviously, if the people aren't being adequately represented, that hurts the justice system."

Adams told The State his agency was hurt at the beginning of this fiscal year with the loss of $2.5 million for civil case appointments, plus three more budget cuts since then totaling about 25 percent.

For the first half of this fiscal year, the agency had been paying court-appointed lawyers with court fines and fees, Adams said. With the budget cuts, those funds had to be diverted to support the state's public defenders.

The Legislature appropriated about $8.6 million to the agency this fiscal year. To date, a total of $2.4 million has been paid to court-appointed lawyers in fees and costs, Adams said.