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TBA applauds Gov. Haslam, General Assembly for funding indigent representation reform

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Bar Association President Lucian Pera is applauding Gov. Bill Haslam, the General Assembly and the Tennessee Supreme Court for their partnership in strengthening Tennessee's commitment to indigent representation reform in the wake of adoption of a recurring allocation of $9.7 million in the FY2018-19 budget, which the governor signed last week.

The TBA made increased indigent representation funding its top legislative priority in 2018, and the budget allocation marks a significant achievement in the ongoing efforts for indigent representation reform in Tennessee.

"The TBA applauds Governor Haslam, the General Assembly, and the Tennessee Supreme Court for increasing funding for indigent defense of Tennessee's most vulnerable citizens and children," Pera said. "Competent representation costs money, and the constitutional right to counsel is only real if lawyers appointed to defend them are paid reasonably. The TBA especially wants to thank Chief Justice Jeff Bivins for his courageous leadership in making indigent representation reform and increased funding the Court's top priority this year. This victory would not have happened without his forcefully getting out front on this issue.

"We know how committed the Chief and the entire Court are to enacting the reforms envisioned by the Court's Indigent Representation Task Force, including significantly higher attorney compensation and a statewide indigent representation task force. We hope and expect to work with the Court next year to move funding even closer to what the Court's Task Force recommended. And just as important, the TBA wants a statewide commission to oversee and improve indigent representation for Tennesseans in need."

In response to requests by the Tennessee Supreme Court - requests strongly supported by the TBA and its members - the FY 2018/19 state budget includes an additional $9.7 million in recurring funding for indigent representation reform. On April 19, 2018, the Tennessee Senate and House of Representatives approved the budget. On May 21, 2018, Gov. Haslam signed the appropriations bill. The funding becomes available July 1, 2018.

The funding will be used to increase compensation for appointed counsel for those unable to afford counsel in criminal and other cases where the Constitution grants them a right to counsel. Before this week's funding boost, Tennessee ranked second-from-the-bottom among all U.S. jurisdictions in funding for indigent representation.

Increased funding of indigent defense was one of two key recommendations of the Court's Indigent Representation Task Force, chaired by former Supreme Court Justice William C. Koch, Jr. That task force spent two years holding hearings across the State and developing its 198-page report issued in April 2017. The Supreme Court strongly urged the legislature to enact the Task Force's other key finding - the establishment of a statewide indigent representation commission - but no action was taken this year. The TBA continues to strongly support this Task Force recommendation and will join the Court in seeking the creation of a commission next year.

The new funding will increase the amount attorneys are paid to work on indigent cases, as well as raise the current caps imposed on payment for individual cases. The Supreme Court has not yet announced what changes in rates and caps it will make in light of the legislature's decision. The TBA is also working closely with the Supreme Court's Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) on training programs for attorneys who take these cases.

Along with changes in rates and caps, the AOC has committed to implement periodic or "interim" billing for attorneys, replacing the existing system under which most cases cannot be billed until the end. That change will address the ongoing problem of many attorneys not receiving payment for their work on indigent cases for years, until after the conclusion of a case.

Published May 28, 2018

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