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Some Court-Appointed Lawyers Scared Off By Prospect Of Pay Cut

Many court-appointed attorneys say they're no longer interested in acting as public defenders. An expected state pay cut is prompting the exodus. North Carolina depends heavily on lawyers in private practice to represent defendants who can't afford an attorney. They operate in counties which don't have public defender offices as well as the few which do, like Mecklenburg and Wake. Until recently, nearly 3,000 private practice lawyers were part of this system. That number is getting smaller. That's because the state's Office of Indigent Defense Services has notified them they should now expect to get less than the $75 per hour they've been receiving. A current budget shortfall and the likelihood of cuts next year are to blame. Danielle Carman, assistant director of that office, says the number of lawyers who have already removed themselves from the list is worrisome. "I believe we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of what's about to happen in our criminal courts, in particular, around the state," says Carman. "There's going to be delays in cases. Victims and witnesses are not going to get justice. They're going to have come back to court for continuances and cases that stretch out because the lawyers aren't available to handle them." All court-appointed attorneys in Bladen and Rutherford Counties have removed themselves from the list. Goldston Womble is one of those attorneys. He has a small practice in Elizabethtown in southeastern North Carolina. "If they reduce the amount that they're paying down substantially below $75, there's no way that I can perform that work," says Womble. "I mean, I'd be in a deficit situation, so I just can't afford to do it." The Office of Indigent Defense Services estimates after overhead attorneys pocket about $17 per hour. For now, some judges are forcing attorneys to take cases anyway. Womble has been ordered to take a few. He worries since there aren't many attorneys in Bladen County, attorneys will have to work cases which don't fall under their expertise. For example, real estate lawyers taking criminal cases. Forsyth and Alamance counties have also had high numbers of attorneys say they're no longer interested. Carman, of the Indigent Services Office, expects to have a better idea of what her office can pay court-appointed attorneys after a meeting on May 20th. But lawyers won't know the rate for sure until a final state budget is approved.