JEFFERSON CITY — Private attorneys in Boone and Callaway counties might soon be asked to help reduce public defenders' caseloads by providing free legal services for people unable to hire defense lawyers.
The Columbia Daily Tribune reported that the likely change is a response to a decision by the Boone County public defender's office to limit the number of cases it takes.
Presiding 13th Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler told members of the Boone County Bar Association that attorneys who practice civil law should prepare to take on pro bono work, along with criminal defense lawyers. Those cases will primarily involve misdemeanor criminal violations and misdemeanor probation cases.
"Don't think for a moment that somehow this crisis is the fault of the public defender. It is not," Oxenhandler said. "For the past 40 years, the public defender has been the savior of the private bar. For the past 40 years, a small group of dedicated professionals had been overworked, underpaid and in some instances treated like a second-class professional. We don't live on that street anymore."
"All of you have turned away a case because you were busy and knew you could not effectively serve the client's best interest. Up to now, the public defender has been denied that ability."
The local bar association must now develop a protocol for assigning attorneys to handle overflow cases.
"The fact of it now is that everybody is a criminal defense attorney," Oxenhandler told the group.
The state public defender system has set maximum caseload standards for its offices. When limits are exceeded for three consecutive months, the public defender director can certify that the local office has limited availability for cases. Officials then are supposed to work with prosecutors and judges to reduce demand for public defenders and can refuse new cases if an agreement is not reached.
Some Columbia attorneys said they appreciate the predicament faced by their civil service colleagues, but they also are concerned about taking on extra work without compensation.
"As lawyers, we are charged with performing legal services in a competent manner," civil attorney Dan Simon said. "We won't get paid for this. I know that sounds greedy, but we operate small businesses where we have assistants and law clerks who are dependent on us."
Other attorneys without criminal law experience said they worry about having to become instant experts in an unfamiliar area.
"Attorneys typically focus their practices in order to develop a comprehensive knowledge of the laws and practices in their selected field," said Amy Markel, who practices family law. "The process of specialization takes years as experience and knowledge build. It is unrealistic to expect an attorney with no training or experience in criminal law to develop an effective working knowledge of the applicable laws and systems overnight."