Editorial: Bar advocates provide critical legal services

  • Everald Henry, who has a private practice in Amherst and has been a bar advocate for about a year, is shown in court in Northampton during April. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/1/2018 6:40:02 PM

Bar advocates provide a critical service in Massachusetts, spending hundreds of hours representing criminal defendants who otherwise could not afford a lawyer.

We hope that this is the year that the state finally stops its inexcusable pattern of running out of money in June to pay these private lawyers, forcing them to wait for weeks before they are reimbursed sometimes thousands of dollars for their services.

The state’s 2,500 to 3,000 bar advocates are a mix of lawyers at various stages in their careers in private practice. Among them is Everald Henry, who has been a lawyer since 2016 and opened a practice in Amherst focusing on immigration and contract law.

Henry told Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter Emily Cutts that he joined the bar advocate program about a year ago because he enjoys criminal defense work, and he also wants to help defendants who cannot pay for their own lawyer. “People go to jail because they don’t have anyone to speak up for them, they don’t have anyone to advocate for them and they make deals that are not necessarily in their best interest.”

The experience has broadened his own perspective about challenges faced by some defendants, Henry says. He cited a case involving a person with mental illness that taught him how to better advocate for treatment rather than jail time.

“That was very new to me. It was a struggle and it was a lesson I had to learn,” says Henry. “When I see certain things or hear certain things, I’m more mindful now that a person’s behavior sometimes is indicative of something greater or some underlying reason.”

Bar advocates supplement the work done by the full-time public defenders who are employed by the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Statewide there are about 500 full-time public defenders, but the bar advocates take on about 80 percent of all cases. Last year, the Committee for Public Counsel Services handled nearly 269,000 cases.

Its general counsel, Lisa Hewitt, says of bar advocates, “They more than supplement, they are the workhorses of the delivery system. We depend largely in the commonwealth of Massachusetts on the help of bar advocates. … It’s truly an incredible thing these private attorneys do.”

New bar advocates must attend a five-day seminar called “Zealous Advocacy in the District Court,” run by Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education Inc. “It’s our responsibility to make sure we have quality representation out there and that people have legal and trial skills,” Hewitt says.

Bar advocates are paid an hourly rate that has not changed in more then a decade — $53 for district court cases and $60 for those in superior court. That is far less than lawyers in private practice normally charge, and they receive no other compensation from the state for, among other things, the cost of liability insurance. Bar advocates cannot bill for more than 1,650 hours annually.

Recently, bar advocates have not been able to count on getting paid on time by the state as the fiscal year neared its June 30 end. Beginning in 2013, the state routinely has level-funded the budget for the Committee for Public Counsel Services at about $98 million, despite the need for annual supplemental budgets to pay the full cost of bar advocates’ work.

Last year, it took until July 11 for Gov. Charlie Baker to sign an emergency bill approving more than $26 million to reimburse bar advocates for hours worked before June 30. Among those affected was Lisa Lippiello, of Northampton, who has been a bar advocate since 2010.

“I think even more than just the financial hardship that it creates, you feel underappreciated,” Lippiello said last July after going weeks without getting paid for her work as a bar advocate. “You work so hard and you don’t get paid enough given the overhead costs and expenses and law school loans and malpractice insurance. When it happens, you just start questioning, ‘What am I doing this for?’”

Last year, the Legislature created a $104 million reserve account controlled by the state Executive Office for Administration and Finance to cover shortfalls in agencies such as the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

We hope that money remains available in June so that paychecks for bar advocates are not interrupted. That’s the least the state can do to recognize the importance of their work.




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