Court Cuts Cost of Legal Aid for the Poor

Times Staff Writer

The cost of appointing private attorneys to represent the poor in Los Angeles Municipal Court has been cut by $1.4 million during the first nine months of 1985, Presiding Judge Malcolm H. Mackey said Wednesday.

Mackey also has informed the county Board of Supervisors that trims in the cost of other court services--such as investigators, expert witnesses, doctors and laboratory analyses--have saved $300,000 during the first nine months compared to last year.

The court was beset early this year by reports that some lawyers, appointed by judges to represent needy criminal defendants when public defenders were unavailable, overcharged for their services.

The Los Angeles Municipal Court, Mackey told the supervisors in a Nov. 1 letter, "is doing more than talking about controlling expenditures, we are doing it."

And, he said, there is more to come.

Alternate Counsel Plan

He told supervisors that next January a County Bar-administered Alternate Defense Counsel system for selecting private attorneys in indigent felony cases will go into effect in downtown Los Angeles, where about three-fourths of the Los Angeles Judicial District's felony cases are handled.

Coupled with the downtown misdemeanor alternate counsel program that started Sept. 1, Mackey wrote, the move "holds the potential for substantial additional savings."

Much of the savings already accomplished, according to Christopher Crawford, chief of Municipal Court services, has been through expansion of the alternate counsel approach that began last year on an experimental basis in Van Nuys and San Fernando Municipal Courts.

It subsequently was extended to West Los Angeles, the downtown Traffic Court and Central Arraignment Courts.

Under the alternate counsel system, the county may underwrite a private firm that supplies attorneys at fixed fees. Under the arrangement going into effect downtown after Jan. 1, Crawford said, the Bar will compile and maintain a list of attorneys to handle such cases.

Last February, the county auditor-controller's office concluded that there had been "significant abuses" in the appointment of private attorneys in Municipal Courts and suggested that the county could save at least $3 million a year by wider use of the alternate counsel system.

Stricter Guidelines

The cost of appointing private attorneys had risen sharply and totaled more than $7.1 million in 1984.

Crawford said another "significant" factor in the cutting of costs has been the stricter rules and guidelines laid down by Mackey early in the year. These include more careful accounting and better control of claims made by private attorneys, ceilings on the hours they may spend and fees they may charge for individual cases and checks and balances making it easier to identify improper billings.

He suggested that the big expansion of the alternate counsel system to the downtown felony court will mean that a total saving of $3 million a year "is not far off."

Also having an effect on both the court and attorneys, Crawford noted, was a spate of publicity on the abuses, which included claims by a few attorneys that they spent more time in court than the courts operated, submission of duplicate claims and late claims.

"Too many times," Crawford said, "we're in the position of speculating about cost savings. In this particular action, the court has developed alternate ways of appointing counsel, and we're able to point to dollars and cents as opposed to theories or speculation."

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