Smith County commissioners voted to reaffirm action to suspend payment of fees to hourly attorneys working on child protection cases within the 321st District Court following two presentations in court Tuesday.
On June 18, commissioners approved action putting 321st District Court Judge Carole Clark on notice they would not pay non-contracted attorneys after July 18.
The action followed two budget transfers equaling $350,000 since early May to pay attorney fees associated with Child Protective Service removals. State law requires children be assigned legal representation. Parents who meet indigent defense requirements also are mandated to receive representation.
Around 360 children have pending cases in Judge Clark’s court.
County Judge Joel Baker presented information regarding the transfers and its effect on the budget. The transfers bring the district court’s revised budget to $1,082,000 for the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. He suggested the court’s budget is far out of line with other similar-sized counties.
Two district courts in Jefferson County (Beaumont) spend roughly $320,000 on child, juvenile and child support cases, according to 279th District Court Judge Randy Shelton. Judge Clark’s 2013 budget for child cases was $732,000 prior to the transfers.
Two district courts in Jefferson County oversee around 220 children who have been removed from homes.
Baker said the situation would remain in a “holding pattern” while an audit consultant works with the District Court to find efficiencies and determine if its expenditures are in line with other similar sized counties. He made several recommendations to reduce expenses.
Commissioners shared his concern.
“We have to abide by our budget. It’s set,” he said. “Unfortunately we’re talking about a societal problem and we want to help where we can but as a society we’re reaping what we sew.”
Judge Clark said removal cases are on an upward trend. Cases are up more than 70 percent over two years, she said. There is a fundamental dispute between commissioners and her court regarding application of the law and what constitutes “competent and effective” representation as the law regarding appointed attorneys mandates, she said.
She hopes to find a solution that is fair to the courts, attorneys and children they represent while following the law.
“We have to provide lawyers. What is a reasonable fee for the service and is it OK for them to not provide the service the law requires?” she said.
The district court uses 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.”
Contract attorneys average between 140-150 hours a month, she said, or $46-$43 per hour.
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 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 cases 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.
He said commissioners could find it difficult to stop using hourly attorneys amid a “legally complex” situation, including an inability to “just drop clients.”
Judge Clark said unfunded state and federal requirements are pushing financial responsibility upon counties.
She questioned whether assigned attorneys in other counties were meeting state mandates such as required meetings with clients every three months and before required hearings.
Judge Shelton said he was aware there was a “need to make sure attorneys are doing what the law requires and following up on cases” within many courts, including his own.
Commissioner court members said they were not singling Judge Clark out. The court questions expenditures that exceed original estimates but that transfers of $350,000 raise concerns and questions about the district court’s process and management, Warr said.
“We do want to bring the cost down but we want to represent the children,” Commissioner JoAnn Hampton said. “There’s a point and time where we’ve got to protect the child but we’ve also got to protect taxpayers.”