In a June 11 op-ed published by The News & Observer, McGuireWoods partner C. Colon Willoughby addressed the urgent need to adequately compensate court-appointed lawyers who represent indigent defendants.
Willoughby served as Wake County, N.C.’s district attorney for 28 years before joining McGuireWoods’ Raleigh office in 2014. In his op-ed, he emphasized the critical role of private assigned counsel (PAC) in defending indigent criminal defendants in North Carolina.
“Without good lawyers on both sides, the process does not work as it should,” he wrote.
Faced with a budget crisis in 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly reduced the rates paid to PAC from $75 to $55 per hour for district court cases and from $75 to $60 per hour for most superior court cases. But the rates have not changed since then, despite an economic recovery that produced surplus tax revenue. Many experienced lawyers have stopped handling court-appointed cases because the reimbursement payment is less that their out-of-pocket expenses of office overhead, Willoughby noted.
“We recognize the dire situation that exists in this area of legal practice in North Carolina, and especially our duty to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” Willoughby wrote. “The failure to ensure competent representation of indigent defendants can result in improper convictions, inequitable sentences, unnecessary stress to victims, retrials and ultimately, increased costs to taxpayers.”
Willoughby concluded: “This is an issue that has far reaching implications, and it is incumbent on us and our government to address it and prevent grave damage to our court system and public.”