CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For the first time in 30 years, private attorneys appointed to represent defendants in West Virginia who cannot afford legal representation on their own are being paid more for their work on behalf of their clients.
“If you take the Consumer Price Index over the course of 30 years, it would give you a fair indication that, even with the current increase, court-appointed counsel probably are not being paid what they deserve,” said Dana Eddy, executive director of Public Defender Services.
“However, I will say the state is to be commended because, with this increase, even though it is still inadequate, it is, nonetheless, one of the higher rates of compensation paid in the surrounding area (for court-appointed work).”
Eddy said private attorneys should not be going into financial holes because of court appointments.
“I think until this last increase, it was a case that many attorneys were calculating that with their overhead and their cost of doing business any court-appointed case carried with it the potential of actually losing money.”
Because of that, attorneys were unwilling to volunteer to take appointments in some parts of West Virginia which forced ordered assignments.
The rate increases were in legislation Governor Jim Justice signed in March ahead of the 30th anniversary for Public Defender Services in April.
Implementation of tighter guidelines was coinciding with the hikes.
Out-of-court work could include travel, interviews of clients and witnesses, preparation of pleadings and pretrial research. Time spent waiting on hearings or trials in front of judges, magistrates or other judicial officers were included under defined in-court work.
Last fiscal year, more than 28,000 cases amounting to 486,000 hours were reported by court-appointed counsel, according to the agency.
Altogether with this increase, Eddy estimated West Virginia would spend more than $50 million total this fiscal year on indigent defense through salaried public defenders and private counsel appointed by courts.
He said the Mountain State regularly has one of the highest levels of such legal work nationally per capita.
“It’s a constitutional mandate that the state provide anybody facing prosecution by the state counsel if they cannot otherwise afford it,” Eddy said.
“It’s extremely crucial, especially in a country that believes in the rule of law. This is one of the very basic building blocks of the foundation for the rule of law.”