Many lawyers who represented the state’s poorest defendants last year are still waiting to get paid, after emergency funding allocated to cover a deficit in the budget fell short.
The Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state agency that oversees court-appointed attorneys, sent an e-mail to private lawyers this week apologizing for the insufficient funding, saying the $14.2 million supplemental budget passed last month will cover only a “small portion” of what is owed.
Beyond the emergency funding, the committee still owes lawyers more than $2 million for work performed before the close of the last fiscal year, June 30. The state also still owes roughly $3.5 million in court costs, such as for attorneys’ expenses and for the experts and investigators who assist in cases.
“We will therefore need a further supplemental funding bill to pay for all services provided through June 30th,” the committee said in the e-mail.
The e-mail added that while the Legislature ended its 2016 formal session, “informal sessions at which funds can be appropriated continue every week.”
“We continue to work diligently with Senate and House of Representatives leadership to convey the emergency nature of this situation and how it unfairly impacts our attorneys,” the e-mail said.
The commission is the state’s public defender agency and has a roster of full-time staff attorneys across the state, but it also relies heavily on some 3,000 private lawyers who assist on criminal cases and civil litigation, such as guardianships, sex offender classifications, and child and family cases.
State officials said this week that the committee can use up to $3 million from this fiscal year’s budget, which began July 1, to pay for overdue expenses from last year. The committee may use that provision to pay $3 million of its outstanding expenses as soon as next week, officials said, but it would still owe $2 million that would need to be appropriated by the Legislature.
Lisa M. Hewitt, general counsel for committee, said in a statement that it is working with the governor’s office and Legislature “to secure sufficient funding for these constitutionally necessary services.”
She said the Legislature has regularly addressed funding deficiencies when needed, adding: “We . . . fully expect to receive sufficient funding to pay for the remaining bills.”
A spokesman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo would not address the lack of funding Thursday. A spokeswoman for Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg said she did not know when the Legislature would consider a supplemental budget.
Dominick Ianno, chief of staff for the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, said in a statement that the administration is calling for the funding.
“The Baker-Polito administration has repeatedly filed to appropriately fund the CPCS in its budget proposals,” Ianno said. “We look forward to working with the CPCS and the Legislature to finalize the [2016 fiscal year] spending amount needed and ensure lawyers are paid for their work in a timely manner.”
The delay in processing the payments has frustrated attorneys and court vendors, such as experts and investigators, who say it is a yearly occurrence that hurts their business and leaves them wondering when they will get paid. Last year, it took the Legislature until October to pass a supplemental budget to address shortfalls.
One attorney said he was owed $12,000 before the supplemental budget was passed. Guy Larock, president of the Association of Court Appointed Attorneys, said he has heard from a lawyer who lost her health insurance because she was unable to pay her bills while she waited to be paid by the state.
“Our issue is our mortgages have to be paid, our student loans have to be paid,” he said. “The bills keep coming.”
Larock added that the attorneys are providing what is known as bar advocate work, the constitutionally required representation of indigent clients, and are paid far less than what they would make in private practice. Attorneys are paid $50 an hour to represent clients in the District Court, for instance, or $60 to represent clients charged with felonies in Superior Court. Attorneys who handle murder cases are paid $100 an hour.
“It’s not a lot of money to do bar advocate work,” he said.
Daniel J. Collins, of Level Investigations, said private detectives and experts are often the last to be paid. He is owed more than $10,000.
“I simply wish the Legislature would be more proactive and/or quick to move on budget shortfalls,” he said. “Getting caught up in this hurts my business every year. I’m just a guy who wants to get paid for the work I do.”
Stephen Weymouth, an attorney who handles Superior Court cases, questioned why the Legislature has failed to properly fund the budget for attorneys, necessitating supplemental budgets and delayed payments. Each year, he said, the Legislature cuts the amount that the governor’s office and the lawyers’ committee recommend.
“It is shameful why a full amount of money can’t be enacted at the beginning of the fiscal year,” he said, adding that this is the first time in his memory that a second supplemental budget was needed.
State and committee officials said the preparation of a yearly budget is a guessing game because the caseload in the justice system fluctuates. They said the need for a supplemental budget is routine because of unforeseen expenditures, similar to how a snow and ice removal budget can be unpredictable.
But bar advocates argue that the Legislature routinely underfunds the budget, keeping lawyers and others waiting for payments. Last year, the Baker administration proposed a $133.6 million budget. The Legislature cut that figure to $98.9 million when it passed the budget.
In February, the administration proposed adding another $39 million; the Legislature approved $25 million.
“It’s the same story; it happens every year,” said Robert M. Griffin, an attorney who handles Superior Court cases. “It’s not like [the committee] is asking for an unrealistic amount of money. They ask based on projections, what they think they’re going to need, and they always run out of money.”