Bar Association's decision on proposed changes in representation of indigent clients is unclear
Published: March 13, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - A proposal to reform the territory's system for appointing private attorneys to represent indigent clients in certain criminal cases has received an equivocal response from the V.I. Bar Association.
The Bar Association's board of governors met Feb. 28 to consider a set of proposals put forth by the Ad Hoc Committee on Indigent Appointments, according to a statement by Bar Association President Ernest Morris Jr.
The four-page proposal would have been a first step toward restructuring the V.I. Superior Court rules that spell out how the courts fulfill their statutory mandate to provide defense attorneys to suspects who are unable to afford their own attorneys but cannot be represented by the Territorial Public Defender's Office.
The system has come under fire in recent years for low rates of pay, late payments to attorneys assigned to the cases and for appointing attorneys who are not well versed in criminal defense to represent clients accused of serious felonies.
Among the most significant proposed changes:
- The creation of a major felony panel to take appointments for cases involving serious felonies at a higher rate of pay than other court-appointed attorneys.
- The creation of a pro bono panel consisting of attorneys who agree to volunteer up to 30 hours of uncompensated representation of indigent clients in non-major-felony cases.
- Requiring "quasi-indigent" defendants, when possible, to pay for all or part of their defense under a co-payment system.
According to the press release, the board of governors "did not endorse the revised proposal" of the committee, but "the proposal was approved as a Committee Report and a policy initiative."
When asked to clarify that position, Morris repeated the same language, then declined to specify what exactly the board voted on.
"I don't know that we give out those specific details," he said.
He also would not disclose the tally of the vote, or votes, and refused to disclose how he voted on the measure, or measures, put forth.
"It doesn't matter how individual members vote," Morris said. "Once the board adopts a position, every member of the board supports that position."
Morris did offer some explanation. He said that if the board had "endorsed" the proposal, which it did not, the board "likely would have gone forward utilizing it just as it was."
Approving the proposal as a committee report does not bind the Bar Association to any specific position, Morris said, except to the extent that the proposal has been approved as a policy initiative, which also "is not necessarily binding in its exact form."
St. Croix attorney Edward Barry, who was chairman of the committee that submitted the proposal, said Morris' language in the press release was unclear to him.
"I have no idea what any of that means," Barry said.
Barry, who emphasized that he was speaking individually and did not intend his statements to represent any official Bar Association position, was removed by Morris from the committee chairmanship shortly after the vote.
"It was, 'Good job, Ed. You're fired,' " Barry said.
Barry is being replaced at the head of the indigent-appointments committee by St. Croix attorney Pamela Colon, according to the press release.
Morris denied that the decision was based on Barry's comments in a Feb. 19 Daily News story discussing the committee's proposal and the problems it was meant to address.
At the same time, Morris' press release reminds committee chairmen that they lack the authority "to act or speak on behalf of the membership," and, in an interview, Morris expressed clear displeasure with Barry's statements.
Despite being unclear about the Bar Association's stated position and despite being removed from the committee's leadership, Barry said he took the vote and Colon's appointment as positive steps toward reforming a system that the committee, in a policy statement issued under Barry's direction, criticized as "deeply flawed, fundamentally unfair to both the accused and counsel, and in urgent need of critical reforms."
"Pam Colon is an absolute superstar and will do a wonderful job on this," Barry said.
Any proposed rule changes backed by the Bar Association would ultimately have to be adopted by the Virgin Islands Legislature and the judicial branch before taking effect.
Morris said that he expects Colon and the new committee will begin meeting with stakeholders to discuss the issue further. He said he is hopeful that some changes might be implemented by the end of the year.
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com.