Change Proposed in Legal Aid Representation
A money-saving proposal by the Dinkins administration that would change the way poor people are represented by Legal Aid lawyers has run into fierce opposition from the lawyers’ union, which says the change would hurt clients’ representation.
Under the proposal by Milton Mollen, the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, a Legal Aid client would no longer be represented by the same lawyer from the beginning of a criminal case to the end. Mr. Mollen has proposed that Legal Aid form an arraignment bureau to handle the early phases of cases.
But Michael Z. Letwin, the president of the union that respresents Legal Aid lawyers, said that critical decisions and plea bargaining often occur during arraignment, and that Mr. Mollen’s proposal would lead to the least experienced lawyers handling that work.
Legal Aid represents about half of all people charged with crimes in the city. Its officials have said for nearly 20 years that continuity of representation helps assure that poor people receive good legal representation, partly because lawyers establish relationships with clients early in their cases.
The city has no direct control over the Legal Aid Society, which is a private organization. But because the city controls much of Legal Aid’s financing, it has often been able to pressure the group to adapt to satisfy the needs of the courts system.
The proposal came as Mr. Mollen and Eric J. Schmertz, the city’s Labor Relations Commissioner, entered talks last week between the society and the union of its 1,000 lawyers. The society and the union have been unable to resolve a dispute over money and other issues. A contract proposal from the society was rejected overwhelmingly in a union vote last week.
Mr. Mollen said his proposal would increase lawyer productivity and help the city reduce the time between arrest and arraignment. With potential savings from the plan, Mr. Mollen said, the city might be able to come up with more money, which that the society could then pass on to its lawyers, who earn between $29,000 and $60,000.
But the plan immediately reopened what was for years an emotional debate about how to best handle the large number of cases of indigent defendants.
Archibald R. Murray, the executive director of the society, said he did not believe it was necessary to “break the important linkage of continuity of representation to achieve enhanced productivity.”
The union, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, won the right to continuous representation of clients in two bitter strikes in the 1970’s, and Mr. Letwin, the union’s president, said the lawyers would not give up that right, which is in their contract. “It’s reprehensible,” Mr. Letwin said, “that anyone in the city administration is trying to diminish our clients’ rights by trying to blackmail us during a labor dispute.” ‘It Was a Practical Time’
In an interview, Mr. Mollen acknowledged that it would be difficult under ordinary circumstances to win approval for a change in the contract. By trying to link the contract dispute with productivity increases, Mr. Mollen said, he hoped to use the labor dispute to change the arraignment system. “It was a practical time to raise the issue,” he said.
The Mollen proposal comes as the city struggles with complex interrelated problems. City officials are eager to avoid what could be a crippling strike by the Legal Aid lawyers. At the same time, they are exploring ways of increasing the number of cases that can move through the courts and decreasing the costs.
In addition, for several years the city has been under public and legal pressure to reduce the time that people who are arrested often must spend in jail awaiting arraignent.
Most studies have attributed much of that delay to the courts, the prosecution and the police. But Dinkins administration officials also concluded, Mr. Mollen said, that delays are caused by the Legal Aid system. He said that a lawyers who is are preparing to handle a case until the end of the trial contributes to delays during arraignment by using that phase to do more than is necessary to complete arraignments.