How do we best provide legal representation to indigent clients? That was the heart of the issue this week at the House Judiciary Committee when it heard HB 215, sponsored by Representative Stanley Cox (R-Sedalia). Among other changes in the bill, HB 215 would require the contracting out of legal services to private attorneys for all nonsexual Class C and Class D felonies, all misdemeanor cases, all traffic cases, and all probation violation cases.
Currently these cases are provided legal representation through the public defender system unless the case load is so large that the public defender commission finds it necessary to contract for private legal services.
In a spirited discussion lawyers on both sides of House Bill 215 argued about the pros and cons of letting private attorneys handle most of the indigent clients in the state, which would essentially gut the public defender system. Some alleged that contracted private attorneys could save the state money, others claimed the quality of legal representation would decrease if handled by private attorneys for a capped amount.
The bill is a response to a long standing dispute about caseloads in the public defender system. In recent years the public defender system in Missouri has warned repeatedly that it is overburdened. After years of litigation the Missouri Supreme Court in 2012 allowed the public defender system to set a cap on the number of cases they handle and some offices are no longer accepting new clients. Skeptics, including some prosecutors, disputed the caseload number and pointed to a recent audit by the state auditor that showed flaws in the way caseloads were determined by the public defender system.
The Judiciary Committee took no action on the bill, but considering the strong convictions of all involved, this debate is far from over.