The current method of appointing private attorneys to represent the poor in the Los Angeles Municipal Court has led to "significant abuses" by lawyers, the county auditor-controller's office has concluded, and the county could save millions of dollars a year by wider use of a different system.
The study was sought by the Board of Supervisors after reports that some attorneys were overcharging the county to represent indigent defendants. Based on a review of the claims of five attorneys, the auditor-controller's office found:
- Some lawyers claimed to have spent more than eight hours a day in court, although courts average only six operating hours a day. One attorney charged for 25 1/2 hours of court time on one day. One attorney claimed 17 hours of non-court time on a single day.
- Attorneys have submitted claims more than two years after conclusion of their cases, making it difficult for judges to evaluate their validity.
- Some attorneys submitted duplicate claims for the same services, or charged twice for the defendants with more than one case pending even though the cases were handled at the same time.
Tyler McCauley, chief of the audit division, said the five attorneys were selected because "we felt they were representative of the problems occurring out there." They were not identified.
The audit noted that many private attorneys are appointed because of the frequent unavailability of public defenders and said the cost of using the appointed lawyers in Los Angeles Municipal Court escalated until it totaled more than $7.3 million in 1984.
The report blamed the problems on an inadequate system for checking payments and said: "We estimate millions of dollars can be saved annually by adopting one or more alternative methods of obtaining attorney services."
More than $3 million could be saved each year by expanding the use of the Alternate Defense Counsel System already being used on an experimental basis in municipal courts in Van Nuys, San Fernando and West Los Angeles, according to the audit.
Under that system, the county hires a firm that supplies attorneys at a fixed hourly fee in cases referred by the court.
Another alternative system involves contracting with individual attorneys at a set fee of $40 an hour.
McCauley said a subsequent report will deal with other municipal courts in the county outside the Los Angeles Judicial District, and with the Superior Court.
Malcolm H. Mackey, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court, wrote County Auditor-Controller Mark H. Bloodgood that he had reviewed the audit report and "concurs in all major areas" with the findings and recommendations.
The Board of Supervisors asked Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner Jan. 8 to investigate apparent irregularities in the county's payment of legal fees totaling more than $25 million a year to court-appointed criminal defense attorneys.
The supervisors also asked the auditor-controller's office to study the matter. McCauley said Tuesday that the office "already was waist-deep" in the subject.