Visiting judge denies legal fee payments

Published on Wednesday, 3 September 2014 01:07 - Written by Kenneth Dean,

A visiting judge denied legal action by local attorneys seeking legal fee payments denied by Smith County commissioners in 2013.

Attorneys petitioned for money owed for legal services rendered for indigent children caught up in Child Protective Services removals.

Commissioners made the decision to stop payments to noncontract attorneys starting July 18, 2013 after approving $350,000 in transfers earlier in the year because costs were running over budget. The 321st District Court’s budget for all attorney fees to represent children removed from homes and indigent parents in those cases was $732,000 that year.

Nine contract attorneys received $6,500 each month, or $702,000 annually, from the county for handling child removal cases that year. Seven attorneys are assigned to represent children removed by CPS. Two attorneys represent parents in those cases.

Attorneys named in the petition did not return requests for comment.

According to the suit against the county, attorneys sought more than $8,000 for services rendered before the July 18 deadline. However, bills were not submitted by the deadline.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph reached two of five attorneys named in the case against Smith County. Both refused comment.

County Judge Joel Baker said the denial bolsters commissioners courts’ power of the purse strings.

“It reinforces what we’ve said all along, that (the commissioners court) watch over the funding resources of taxpayers,” he said.

Baker said Judge Carole Clark, of the 321st District Court, has reined in costs and that positive changes with regard to how child protective cases are handled resulted in the process.

Judge Clark said she respected the judge’s decision but continued to question how the state grants authority by requiring “effective” counsel but has not provided or compelled counties to provide adequate funding for indigent residents in civil and criminal cases.

Judge Clark said child removal cases jumped 70 percent in six months during 2013 and that the caseload upped attorney costs. She was surprised by court members’ actions at the time and believed halting further funding hindered her court’s ability to function effectively.

The state’s Family Code prescribes representation for children who cannot represent themselves in child protective cases. The cost of meeting state requirements regarding the definition of “effective” counsel collide oftentimes with funding realities within county budgets, Judge Clark said.

“I don’t know what the final solution is,” Judge Clark said.