Virginia's Indigent Legal Defense System Still Needs Work

July 8, 2007

The state's system for defending those who are unable to pay for legal assistance is getting better, but still has room for improvement, according to a report from a watchdog group.

The Virginia Fair Trial Project released its second "report card" in four years that grades the fairness of the criminal justice system when it comes to poor defendants. The first report in 2003 had shown poor results.

The scorecard is based on 10 principles of a public defense delivery system built by the American Bar Association and adopted by the Virginia State Bar. The new report card shows that the system either improved or maintained its mark in each area scrutinized.

"I think the overall picture that has been drawn here is that there has been substantial improvement but there's a long way to go," the group's director, Betsy Wells Edwards, said.

According to the report card, the most dramatic progress involves accountability and oversight for attorneys representing poor defendants.

Increased funding for indigent defense and a new payment system
for court-appointed lawyers also are among the biggest improvements, the group said.

In the past three legislative sessions, lawmakers have approved almost $17 million in compensation for Virginia's court-appointed lawyers. The General Assembly also has earmarked $8 million for public defender salaries, new positions and new offices, Wells said.

New laws that went into effect July 1 also allows caps on fees paid to court-appointed lawyers representing indigent clients can be waived in some cases. The caps had traditionally been set in stone.

"That's a huge step forward," Wells said. "But there's more to do."

Wells said she is hopeful that the system will only continue to improve in the coming years.

"We've got the support of key legislators. We've got the support of bar groups. We've got the support of the governor, and we've got the attorney general supporting us," she said. "You can't help but feel hopeful about it."


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