By Mike Dunn
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — City Council got an earful today from members of Philadelphia’s legal community who are unhappy with the mayor’s plan to set up what amounts to a second public defender’s office.
Mayor Nutter wants to award a contract for a single law firm to handle what’s called “conflict counsel” — cases in which the Philadelphia public defenders’ association cannot take an indigent defendant’s case because of a conflict. The cases are now given to private attorneys.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Everett Gillison, told City Council’s committee on law and government that hiring a single firm for conflict counsel will mean more extensive help for defendants.
“What we’re talking about here is trying to provide additional services for people who need them, at the most important time of their lives, when they do need them,” Gillison said.
Countering that was Jeffrey Lindy, who served on a Philadelphia Bar Association committee studying the plan, which he opposes. He and other attorneys told the councilmembers that the award might go to a for-profit law firm that would inevitably cut corners.
“You’re going to have attorneys not going up to the prison to visit their clients. You’re going to have an attorney not returning mom and dad’s phone call. And you know what? You gotta return mom and dad’s phone. There’s got to be some semblance of sanity here. It’s wrong. You can’t take poor people and have them represented by a for-profit firm like this,” Lindy said.
Gillison, himself a former public defender, said no decision has been made, and he points out that the conflict counsel cases are currently doled out individually to for-profit law firms.
“What I’m trying to do here is give additional resources to people who happen to be poor. And that’s the overriding issue for me,” Gillison said.
Because the contract is only for one year, City Council has no ability to reject it. Conflict counsel is used in about one third of all cases in which court-appointed representation is needed, amounting to about 30,000 cases a year.