A BUNCH OF LAWYERS complaining about not getting paid promptly ordinarily wouldn’t generate a whole lot of public sympathy. But the way the state treats Victoria Bonilla and about 3,000 other attorneys like her is practically criminal.
For nearly a quarter century, Bonilla has carved out time from her practice to act as a bar advocate — a private lawyer appointed by the state to represent the indigent in Massachusetts’ courts. The work is “demanding,” she says, but hugely gratifying. It’s also far from lucrative. She earns $50 or $60 an hour, depending on whether a case is heard in district or superior court, but there’s a limit of eight billable hours a day, even when she logs 10 or 12. If it takes all morning for a docket number to be called, too bad — the state won’t pay for more than an hour of waiting. Hours spent traveling don’t count either, and if she needs legal secretarial assistance, it comes out of her own pocket.
Bonilla and other bar advocates say they accept those restrictions (and more). After all, no one forces them to take on the cases of men, women, and children in desperate straits. They shouldn’t, however, have to put up with what has become an annual fabricated crisis on Beacon Hill. As the fiscal year nears its end on June 30, the state invariably runs out of money to pay for services bar advocates already have rendered, forcing them to go weeks without compensation. After a series of unnecessary procedural delays, Governor Charlie Baker late last month signed off on supplemental funding to replenish the budget. The money, about $14.2 million, was dispersed through the Committee for Public Counsel Services, a state agency charged with overseeing bar advocates, as well as a smaller number of underpaid public defenders who are on staff. Bonilla only recently received her tardy check — $2,664 that covered late April through June. Other bar advocates, many of whom were waiting for much more, also just got paid. “We still have mortgages,” says Bonilla. “Life goes on. It becomes an issue.”
In an e-mail after the supplemental budget was approved, the committee told the attorneys it understood the “frustration and concern this delay has caused for many of you.” But empathy doesn’t count for anything on a credit card statement. The state owes it to bar advocates to more accurately estimate how much money will be needed to run the program annually, instead of knowingly underfunding it year after year. Beyond that, the Committee for Public Counsel Services ought to be able to anticipate when a shortfall might be looming, long before it’s a fiscal emergency. Baker says a $30 million supplemental budget already has been filed for the current fiscal year to ensure that attorneys receive timely payments. That’s encouraging, but the measure requires approval by the Legislature when it convenes for a new session in 2017, so don’t bank on it yet.
Understandably, some lawyers long ago grew frustrated with the state’s payment system and opted out of taking on cases as bar advocates. Fortunately, there are many others who continue to represent people — guilty and innocent — who can’t afford to hire someone to stand up for them in front of a judge. Bar advocates perform an important and often thankless service. They help uphold basic constitutional rights. The state shouldn’t make it any more difficult for them to do so.