|NEW YORK COUNTY LAWYERS’ ASSOCIATION
14 Vesey Street, New York, NY 10007
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
|Kelli J. Stenstrom
Davis Polk & Wardwell
NYCLA Settles Lawsuit Against N.Y. State and City Challenging Constitutionality of Compensation Rates for Assigned Counsel
New York, NY, November 12, 2003–The New York County Lawyers’ Association (NYCLA) today settled its historic lawsuit against New York State and City challenging the constitutionality of the statutory rates of compensation paid to private assigned counsel who represent children and the poor in court proceedings in New York City.
NYCLA filed its lawsuit in February 2000. In February 2003, New York State Supreme Court Justice Lucindo Suarez issued a Judgment in NYCLA’s favor and against the State and City. Justice Suarez declared the portions of the statutes that fixed the compensation rates unconstitutional as applied in New York City and issued a permanent injunction ordering the State and City to pay assigned counsel $90 per hour for all work until the Legislature modified the rates. The State and City appealed the Judgment. Oral argument on the appeals was scheduled to be heard on November 13. In May 2003, the Legislature finally enacted legislation increasing the rates for the first time since 1986. These new rates – $75 per hour for work on felony criminal cases and $60 per hour for work on misdemeanor criminal cases – will take effect on January 1, 2004. The legislation also created a task force, of which NYCLA is a member, to review the adequacy of the new rates.
“While the recent legislation increasing the rates is an important step forward and one that merits ending this ground-breaking litigation by NYCLA,” said Michael Miller, NYCLA’s President, “there still is much work to be done. We must continue to focus not only on the adequacy of the rates of compensation for assigned counsel, but also on the quality of legal representation provided to all indigent litigants throughout our state.”
“Our primary reason for settling the lawsuit at this time is to preserve the ground-breaking precedents established by this litigation: precedents that have breathed new life into the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright,” said Norman L. Reimer, President-Elect of NYCLA. Reimer continued: “The Supreme Court granted the permanent injunction with the proviso that it would expire when the Legislature acted. Thus, there is little to gain by pursuing the appeals and much to lose. We are heartened by the sure knowledge that the Legislature enacted this reform, over the Governor’s veto, because of NYCLA’s litigation.”
NYCLA continues to believe that there is no principled reason for inadequately compensating attorneys who represent children and indigent litigants in criminal and family court proceedings. NYCLA will continue to speak forcefully for further reform of the assigned counsel rates and looks forward to trumpeting this message when it joins the independent task force established by the new legislation.
“We now turn our attention,” Reimer said, “to the bigger picture: the need to ensure quality legal representation for all indigent litigants in the State’s family and criminal courts. Already we see signs that, as a result of the new rates, efforts are underway to shift cases away from assigned counsel and give them to low-cost institutional providers. NYCLA believes that the profession, society and especially indigent litigants are best served with a hybrid system that includes both institutional defender services and the private bar, participating through the assigned counsel plan. We now rededicate our efforts to preserving that system.”
More importantly, there is an urgent need to establish practice standards that will ensure that every single person who must depend upon court-appointed counsel has access to quality representation. Bargain-basement justice has no place in our judicial system. All lawyers handling these critically important cases, whether working for an institution or as privately assigned counsel, must have access to all necessary support services, manageable caseloads and essential skills in order to provide high-quality legal service to their clients. NYCLA shall continue to work toward that goal, as it has since its founding in 1908.