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Virginia last in legal fees for the poor
Virginia remains lowest in pay for court-appointed lawyers

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Date published: 9/3/2006

RICHMOND--If you can't afford a lawyer, you might not want to commit a crime in Virginia.

Your court-appointed attorney will be paid the lowest rate in the nation--so low that a criminal defense attorneys' group is considering suing the state.

Virginia's indigent defense system has gone through big reforms in recent years, but lawyers say the pay for doing court-appointed work is so low that it's driving attorneys away.

A bill that would have lifted the caps on fees paid to lawyers for doing court-appointed cases failed in the 2006 General Assembly session. Legislation did pass that allows judges, on cases involving a felony that can be punished by more than 20 years in jail, to provide up to $850 in additional compensation to the lawyer if the circumstances and difficulty of the case warrant it.

The fee caps and hourly caps do not apply to capital cases, and lawyers taking court-appointed death-penalty cases must undergo extra training and certification.

Attorneys who accept indigent cases are paid $90 an hour by the state, but the state also limits the number of hours they get paid for--less than two hours for low-end misdemeanors, even though it can take numerous hours to adequately investigate and prepare a defense even for a misdemeanor.

Those hourly limits mean that while it sounds as if lawyers are getting $90 an hour, one defending a simple misdemeanor really gets very little because of the cap, no matter how complex the case might turn out to be. Lawyers might have to make multiple court appearances, and need time to interview witnesses and their own clients--things that will take far more than the hour and a half they're being paid for.

Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, sponsored the failed bill this year that would have lifted the caps.

"The amount of money that Virginia pays court-appointed lawyers is beyond a joke now. It's horrendous," Albo said. "We got closer this year. [Delegate] Lacey Putney's bill got passed, which takes the caps off some of the more serious ones. The problem with our bill, there's no way to figure out how much it's going to cost. Everybody's been underpaid for so long the lawyers didn't bother writing down the number of hours that they spent for hours they're never going to be reimbursed for."

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