For the first time in over 20 years, the Tennessee Supreme Court has ordered an increase in the amount paid to lawyers representing indigent parties in criminal and child welfare cases. This rate increase, a 25 percent hike in the hourly rate paid to lawyers for out-of-court work, was funded by a $9.7 million appropriation by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Bill Haslam.
Beginning July 1, the Court increased the hourly rate paid to court-appointed lawyers representing indigent parties to $50 an hour for all services. The Court also raised the limits on the total amount of compensation a lawyer can receive in certain cases by $250-$500. Before the July 1 increase, lawyers received $40 an hour for out-of-court work and $50 an hour for in-court work.
In making this announcement, Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said, “The Court views this increase as the first in a series of changes for attorney rates and Tennessee’s indigent representation system. The Court carefully considered the many comments received from attorneys and stakeholders on this important issue. Court-appointed lawyers in criminal and child welfare cases play an essential role in our judicial system. We are grateful for their invaluable services. This rate increase is just the first step in establishing a fair compensation system for attorneys representing indigent parties by court appointment. The Court considered a number of ways to apportion the $9.7 million in increased funding and concluded that an hourly rate increase and an increase in the limit on total claims paid in certain cases would be most beneficial to attorneys.”
The entire $9.7 million in new funds was used to increase attorney rates; none was used for administrative costs or other projects.
Under both the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions, the state must provide legal counsel to defendants in criminal cases and parties in many juvenile court cases who cannot afford an attorney. In Tennessee, state-funded public defenders in each judicial district provide legal representation to most indigent defendants in criminal cases. When a public defender has a conflict and cannot represent a party, or other circumstances arise, the judge must appoint private counsel to represent the indigent party. In addition, court appointed attorneys are used to represent children and families in neglect or abuse cases, which accounts for over 30 percent of spending.
“The entire Court is absolutely committed to improving the indigent representation system and its enhancement is the Court’s top priority for the upcoming year,” Justice Bivins said. “Increasing indigent representation funding was our number one budget priority in 2018 and it will be our top priority in 2019. Major reforms are needed to the indigent representation system. This will require a multi-year effort and we are in for the long-haul.”
In 2015, the Tennessee Supreme Court created the Indigent Representation Task Force, chaired by Dean William Koch of the Nashville School of Law, to review Tennessee’s indigent representation system. After 18 months of work that included a statewide listening tour, the Task Force released its findings in a detailed report and recommended many reforms, including an increase in attorney rates. The Supreme Court adopted the Task Force’s findings and is working methodically to make the policy and structure changes necessary for implementation.
“What we are doing today is just the first step in moving the state forward toward a more efficient, effective, and fair indigent representation system,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “The Court will continue to work with lawyers, bar associations, the Governor and the Legislature to create the best solutions for Tennessee. We are committed to being good stewards of our tax dollars and following the mandates of the federal and state constitutions.”
In addition to the pay increases, the Court, under the leadership of Director Deborah Taylor Tate of the Administrative Office of the Courts, recently launched an updated online payment system for attorneys that allows for more efficient and expeditious payments. In addition, the Court, under the direction of Appellate Court Clerk Jim Hivner, will soon begin accepting electronically-filed appellate documents.
To read the Order increasing indigent representation rates, please visit tncourts.gov.