Legal Aid's Chief Attorney Points to the Requirements of Gideon As Funding of Indigent Defense Receives Attention

Inadequate funding of indigent defense in New York has been receiving much needed attention. The Legal Aid Society and a number of other organizations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in a lawsuit involving criminal defense services in counties outside of New York City.

The State Court of Appeals will hear arguments next Tuesday to consider whether the suit can proceed. The lawsuit, filed in the name of a Rochester woman, Kimberly Hurell-Harring, and 19 other people who were facing criminal charges in five counties: Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington, is viewed as a critical step in defining the meaning of a landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the Constitution required States to provide lawyers for indigent people charged with crime.

Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief, told the New York Times that the suit could be important in the City by providing a meaningful way to enforce the requirements of the Gideon v. Wainwright decision. Mr. Banks said the Hurell-Harring case raised a clear question for the courts — “whether Gideon and the right to counsel has meaning or not.” Read full New York Times story.

On March 10, Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau promulgated a criminal defense case cap rule for New York City which adopts the First Department's standards which limit annual criminal defense attorney caseloads to 400 misdemeanors or 150 felonies, with felonies counted as 2.66 misdemeanors in mixed caseloads.

Currently, nearly 83 percent of our criminal defense attorney staff has caseloads significantly in excess of the annual standards set by the First Department, and the annual weighted caseload for attorney staff who handled more than the First Department standards permit is now 718 cases. As set forth in the State case cap law that the Legislature enacted in April 2009, there will now be a four-year implementation period beginning on April 1, 2010 and the Chief Administrative Judge's rule is binding effective April 1, 2014. The rule is modeled on the Juvenile Rights client case cap rule which applies to our offices and will thereby enable a substantial caseload reduction in the Criminal Defense offices as has occurred in the Juvenile Rights offices.