SEATTLE — For the first time, Washington’s Supreme Court is setting limits on the number of cases that public defenders can handle — an effort to improve the quality of legal representation for some of the 200,000 poor people prosecuted in the state every year, but one that could increase costs to local governments at a time of tight budgets.
By a vote of 7-2, the justices said lawyers who represent indigent defendants generally should handle no more than 150 felony cases per year or 300 to 400 misdemeanor cases, and even fewer when the cases are complex. The caseload standards will take effect in September 2013 to avoid imminent hits to local budgets, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said in announcing them Friday.
“Innocent people are convicted if they don’t have an adequate defense,” said Joanne Moore, director of the state’s Office of Public Defense. “There’s been a lot of information in the past few years that many attorneys who are providing public defense are burdened by very high caseloads, and they haven’t been able to give the proper amount of attention to their public defense cases.”
The high court also took another step Friday to help people who can’t afford legal help, adopting a rule that allows non-lawyers with certain levels of training to give legal advice in civil matters, such as selecting and completing court forms, and reviewing and explaining pleadings.
Recent lawsuits in Washington have highlighted the problem with public defender caseloads.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is suing the cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon, saying that those cities jointly contracted with two part-time lawyers to represent indigent defendants in misdemeanor cases.
The two lawyers together handled more than 2,100 cases in 2010 alone, the plaintiffs said. In allowing the case to go forward, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik said the evidence could support a finding that the lawyers were so overburdened that the appointment of public defenders in those cities is “little more than a sham.”
Grant County has spent the past seven years making changes to its public defense system, including a reduction in caseloads, under a court settlement with the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services. In a 2010 state Supreme Court ruling, a Grant County boy who was convicted at age 12 of sexually molesting a young neighbor was granted a new trial after his public defender, who handled about 500 cases annually, failed to investigate his case and urged him to plead guilty. The boy was eventually exonerated.
Since Grant County’s settlement, the county’s felony caseloads per public defender have dropped from about 500 per year to 150.
The state bar association previously adopted caseload standards for indigent defense, but they were hardly enforced. Several years ago, the Legislature passed a law providing money to cities that made strides toward meeting the bar association standards; last year, a dozen cities received grants ranging from $2,500 to $150,000.
With the standards now enshrined by the Supreme Court, they’ll have more teeth. Lawyers who take on indigent clients will have to certify on a quarterly basis that they’re complying, and courts could refuse to allow them to be appointed in such cases if they don’t.
It isn’t clear how much the new standards might cost cities and counties around the state. The amount is expected to vary depending on existing caseloads. Further, the new standards include a weighting process by which serious offenses or complex cases count more, and post-conviction proceedings such as parole violations count as partial cases.
“My guess is that it would require some additional attorney staff, but I’m going to have to do some math,” said Michael R. Kawamura, director of the Pierce County Department of Assigned Counsel.
His office is at or below the threshold of 150 felony cases per attorney, he said, but that might change if post-conviction proceedings are included. His misdemeanor attorneys probably are slightly over the 300-400 case standard for misdemeanor cases, he said.
Public defender caseloads have “been an issue the whole time I’ve been a bar member,” said Justice Susan Owens, who voted for the new standards. “There’ve been some major problems around the state. The size of the caseloads nationally has been shown to be an issue in creating stress and damaging the quality of indigent defense.”
Potential costs to cities and counties “was probably one of the major concerns, but the bottom line is it’s a constitutional mandate that our forefathers put in the state and the national constitutions,” Owens added. “Hopefully the state has taken on some obligations to fund it and hopefully they’ll step up to the plate and help out with that a little more.”
Moore, with the state Office of Public Defense, said some cities might be able to reduce caseloads by creating programs to help people get their driver’s licenses back. Cases over driving on a suspended license constitute one-third of misdemeanor cases across the state, she said.
Two justices voted against the new standards, Charles Johnson and Mary Fairhurst. Johnson was unavailable to comment Friday, and Fairhurst declined to speak with a reporter.