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New York counties may see lower indigent defense costs

November 7, 2012

ALBANY, NY — A new ruling from the New York State Court of Appeals provides an alternative and potentially lower cost route for counties to provide legal services to those who can’t afford their own attorneys. With an annual cost of more than $300 million, the state’s Indigent Defense program is one of nine state mandates that consume 90% of the property tax levy statewide.

Last week’s decision in a case brought by the New York County Lawyers’ Association against the New York City Bloomberg administration allows municipalities to contract with legal aid bureaus or societies for conflict defense work that had previously been provided by so-called 18-B attorneys or county conflict defender offices. “This mandate relief from the state’s judicial branch will help us lower the cost of government at the county level,” said Edward A. Diana, Orange County Executive and president of the New York State Association of Counties.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states have an obligation to provide counsel for the indigent. In New York, the state has mandated that indigent defense is delivered and funded by the county. Article 18-B of the New York County Law (1965) requires each county and New York City to establish a program of indigent defense. Under this law, when the original counsel (either the public defender or the assigned 18-B attorney) has a conflict and cannot represent the accused, counties are obligated to provide conflict counsel.

Prior to this ruling a county had only two available options to provide conflict defense service: either operate a Conflict Defender’s Office or use assigned 18-B counsel. This ruling provides counties with a third option that may be more efficient and in the best interest of taxpayers.