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Supplemental money runs out for court-appointed lawyers

Court-appointed criminal defense lawyers in Virginia are facing five weeks of limited pay as the money allocated for so-called “waiver” payments dried up before the end of the budget year.

The General Assembly appropriated $4.2 million for supplemental payments for the budget year ending June 30, but that money ran out May 21, according to the Supreme Court’s administrative office. The last time waiver funds were exhausted before the end of the fiscal year was the 2011-2012 fiscal year, a court spokesperson said.

Fees for court-appointed lawyers, set by statute, range from $120 to $1,235 for most cases. For cases requiring extra time or effort, lawyers can request additional payments by seeking waivers of the normal fee limitations.

Vouchers submitted with approved waivers for the 2014-15 fiscal year will be automatically reduced to the authorized amount minus any approved waiver amount(s), according to a memo from the court’s administrative office.  The waiver hiatus affects vouchers for cases concluded before June 30, even if they are approved for payment by judges or sent to the court’s Fiscal Department after July 1.

The court’s Chart of Allowances contains general information and guidelines for court-appointed counsel fees and waivers.

The hiatus in waiver payments provoked sharp comments from some attorneys who do court-appointed work.

The situation creates a conflict between lawyers’ financial interest and their client’s legal interests, some said. They said they will get paid far more if their clients are convicted in scheduled trials this month than if the clients are acquitted.

Acquittal would mean an immediate end to the case, with payment promptly determined under the no-waiver regime. Conviction would push the final disposition past the July 1 date for reinstatement of waiver payments.

Requesting a continuance just to preserve the prospect of a higher fee would be unethical, one attorney said.

“This office does not encourage the use of continuances for the purpose of obtaining waiver payments,” the court spokesperson said.

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