A Masssachusetts lawsuit filed yesterday charges that the state, a pioneer in guaranteeing legal counsel to poor criminal defendants, is reneging on that promise as private lawyers refuse to take court-appointed cases because of low pay, the Boston Globe reports. The suit says the number of private lawyers who take such cases has fallen by more than 200 in five years, largely because attorneys are paid only $30 an hour in most cases, the lowest statutory rate in the country. As a result, the suit said, the system “teeters on the brink of collapse.” The suit asks the Supreme Judicial Court to to study the system statewide. The court already planned to hear arguments tomorrow in a lawsuit brought by the state public defender agency against judges in Hampden County, where 53 defendants have been jailed for as long as three months awaiting bail reviews because of a shortage of court-appointed lawyers.
“Our view is that there’s a systemic failure, and we’re asking the court for systemic relief,” said Joshua C. Krumholz, a lawyer with Holland & Knight. “It’s at the point of crisis.” His firm has been involved in similar suits in other states that led to higher pay for some court-appointed lawyers, including in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama. The current Massachusetts hourly rates are $30 for district court cases, $39 for superior court cases, and $54 for murder cases. The $30 rate is the lowest set by statute of any state in the nation, said Krumholz; New Jersey pays $25 an hour, he said, but the rate is set by the state public defender agency.