Business of Law

Private law firm to handle city's court-appointed indigent cases; will this improve current 'mess'?

In a controversial plan, the city of Philadelphia is planning to retain a private law firm to handle all court-appointed defense work for indigent individuals at an expected savings of $1 million annually.

But will this be an improvement on an indigent-defense system that many see as flawed? The issue is hotly contested, pitting the city and a lawyer expected to win the $9.5 million yearly contract against those who currently handle the overflow of up to 27,000 cases annually, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Only about a quarter of the cases that the Philadelphia public defender’s office is conflicted out of are criminal matters. Most of the rest involve representing parents and children in dependency and neglect cases. Nonetheless, legal defense fees for these court-appointed cases are costing the city some $10.5 million a year, and observers question how a private law firm will manage to do the same work for less.

Although the current court-appointed indigent-defense system is, according to one highly regarded practitioner, “a mess,” there’s no reason to believe that the planned handover to a private law firm will be an improvement, that practitioner, Samuel C. Stretton, tells the newspaper. “I just don’t see how the new system can do it, just numbers-wise and economics-wise.”

Currently, some 300 to 350 lawyers accept court appointments at notoriously low fees. Although the plan is not yet a done deal, it appears that attorney Daniel-Paul Alva is likely to strike a deal with the city to create a 75-attorney firm to handle the public defender’s overflow work for $9.5 million a year, the Inquirer says.

He says his firm will be more efficient than farming out the work to individual lawyers. Hence, it will improve on the “hopelessly flawed” current system by providing better representation at lower cost, according to Alva.

Critics worry that if Alva’s venture does prove economically viable, that will be because it is able to “mine” indigent individuals for paying matters such as accident and medical injury cases. This, they contend, could pose a conflict with the firm’s defense counsel role, by introducing a money-making motivation.

“What are you judged on?” attorney Jason Greshes wondered aloud. “What you did in court, or how much extra money you brought in?”

See also:

CBS Philly: “Single-Vendor Contract Will Hurt Legal Service To Philadelphia’s Needy, Opponents Say”

Philadelphia Inquirer: “Nutter administration defends privatization effort”

Updated Oct. 9 to correct a typographical error.

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