For the first time in 20 years, lawyers who accept court appointments to represent poor clients will be getting an increase in pay.
The new fee schedule was announced Monday by the First Judicial District: the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court and Municipal Court systems.
"Everyone involved deserves the right to a fair trial, regardless of circumstance," said Common Pleas Court Administrative Judge Jacqueline F. Allen, who heads the trial division, in a statement announcing the fee increase. "Those attorneys who nobly contribute to that standard are to be commended and, more importantly, adequately compensated for the work they do."
The new fee schedule, which takes effect July 1, will double the rate for felony trial preparation for first-degree crimes to $1,200. The rate for lesser felonies will rise to $750, and the rate for lawyers handling misdemeanor trials will increase from $350 to $450.
The new rates are the result of nine months' work by a Guaranteed Fee System Work Committee – 17 judges, lawyers, and city representatives formed by Common Pleas Court President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper.
The fee schedule has been complained about for years by the city's defense bar. Several defense lawyers have considered suing the city and courts over the issue.
Most, however, simply stopped accepting court appointments, reducing the already limited pool of lawyers available to represent indigent criminal defendants or step in when a public defender had a conflict of interest.
Center City lawyer Ronald L. Greenblatt, immediate past chairman of the Philadelphia chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a member of its executive committee, said he was pleased that court-appointed counsel will be getting a pay raise after more than 20 years: "The defense bar is really concerned with just being able to attract enough attorneys to make sure indigent people are properly represented," he said.
Greenblatt, however, said he remained concerned about the flat maximum fees for lawyers appointed to represent clients in appeals under the state Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). The schedule lists a maximum fee of $2,400 for felony cases and $6,000 for homicide cases. Greenblatt said that's not enough for the investigation and work-intensive PCRA cases. He said he hopes they can persuade the courts to allow defense lawyers to petition the judge to exceed the cap if necessary.
A first step was taken in February 2012 when court officials raised the fees paid to appointed counsel in homicide and death penalty cases. The preparation fee for death-penalty trial lawyers was raised from $2,000 to $10,000, with $700 per diem during trial. The fee to penalty-phase co-counsel went from $1,700 to $7,500.
That increase followed an Inquirer report in 2011 that more than 125 capital trials in Pennsylvania – 69 from Philadelphia – were reversed or remanded by appeals courts because serious mistakes by defense lawyers deprived the accused of a fair trial.
Lawyers quoted in the story cited low pay for court-appointed lawyers as a major factor.
Later in 2011, a federally funded RAND Corp. study of 3,157 Philadelphians charged with murder from 1994 to 2005 showed "an enormous and troubling chasm" in homicide defense between public defenders and court-appointed counsel.
The RAND study also blamed the low pay rate and access to resources available to court-appointed lawyers.
A year later, then-Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner, who oversaw pretrial issues for all city homicide cases, said a study showed a 60 percent reduction in the backlog of untried capital cases in Philadelphia.
"It is clear beyond reasonable doubt," Lerner wrote, that the reforms implemented in Philadelphia "have resulted in enormous improvements in the fairness and efficiency of capital-trial litigation. "
Lerner, now deputy managing director for criminal justice, was also a member of the work committee.