I suspect the vast majority of people would answer affirmatively to the question: Do you have the right to legal counsel in a criminal matter in Charlotte, North Carolina? I suspect the response would be a simple, unequivocal "yes". In reality, your right to legal counsel is under a steady attack. Your right to legal counsel is dwindling right under your nose, and you may not even know it.
Why is this occurring? Let's look at several factors.
Budget Cuts: Many state governments have grappled with budget constraints in recent years. The North Carolina legislature has been tasked with difficult decisions regarding reduced financial resources. However, as the Republican majority emerged, significant cuts to the budget of the Office Of Indigent Defense Services increased. This is not a political statement; it's simply a fact. The lack of appropriate funds to represent indigent clients is an enormous obstacle.
Failure to Pay Counsel Properly: The failure to properly pay legal counsel for representing appointed clients has a snowball effect. As this problem persists, the more qualified attorneys stop handling these cases, and the quality of the legal work suffers. As the problem reaches a certain point, we run the risk of there being no lawyers willing to serve as appointed counsel. This issue is abundantly evident. The current hourly rates for a North Carolina appointed cases are artificially low. I have seen instances of Judges failing to award payment to attorneys for appropriate legal representation. I have also seen Judges fail to reimburse attorneys for proper expenses incurred in representing an indigent client. Another common issue is unnecessary delay in the payment process resulting from the failure to timely process attorney fee petitions. I believe appointed counsel should submit proper fee petitions. I also believe those attorneys should be promptly paid for their efforts.
Accepted norms: As noted, I have seen a trend towards the reduction of individual rights in our state recently. This is not an isolated issue. The Philadelphia Department of Public Safety is currently refusing to pay appointed attorneys for nearly any work, except for actual trials. Any experienced attorney will explain that a successful resolution of a case often requires significant efforts outside of the courtroom (trial). In our state, the legislature has already eroded the right to counsel in various avenues. For instance, a defendant is now only entitled to legal counsel for certain misdemeanors.
Ignorance of the general public: Simply stated, those most affected by this issue are the least educated about the issue. The individuals most harmed by this trend are indigent defendants. However, these individuals tend to be less likely to participate in the political process. They tend to pay less attention to current events such as this in the news. Indigent defendants in Charlotte are not actively pressuring Raleigh legislatures to provide proper legal counsel.
This is a complicated topic. One short blog post is certainly not going to solve the issue. The Office Of Indigent Services works daily to address this matter, and the varies issues that arise within. I give a lot of credit to this organization for the efforts to coordinate the legal services throughout the many communities in our state utilizing the limited financial resources available. I certainly recognize there is limited resources to offer indigent legal services. I believe we must provide these services efficiently, and we must also treat our human resources valuably. This is also an issue that must not go unnoticed; we must find a way to really explain to people just what a danger this trend really is.