Smith County commissioners today voted to reaffirm previous action to suspend payment of fees to hourly attorneys working on child protection cases within the 321st District Court.
County Judge Joel Baker presented information regarding $350,000 in transfers commissioners have made since May to pay attorney’s fees. The transfers bring the district court’s revised budget to $1.082 million for the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The district court utilizes seven contract attorneys who are paid $6,500 each month to represent children removed from homes, and two to represent indigent parents in those cases. Hourly attorneys are paid $75 an hour to handle “overflow.”
Around 360 children have pending cases in the court.
On June 18, commissioners approved action notifying 321st District Court Judge Carole Clark they would not pay beyond what is owed to contract attorneys after July 18.
Attorney John Hardy, an attorney who represents parents on an hourly basis, told the court Judge Clark and attorneys are seeking a solution to the cost overruns. But he described the situation as a “conflict between judicial and family statutes” mandated by state law.
Commissioners are required to monitor the budget, while family statutes require attorneys to effectively represent children and monitor the case’s progress, he said. Reducing the attorney pool would increase the workload for attorneys to the detriment of client representation, he said.
Hardy said he is confident the two sides can reach a compromise before attorneys file litigation against the county to ensure state family law mandates are followed.