Proposal Would Move Civil Indigent Counsel Funding to PDs

Senate Finance Committee Chair Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, has proposed to roll civil legal representation funding in with the indigent counsel programs, strip Tennessee courts of funding for indigent representation and place the administration of both the civil and criminal indigent representation in the state district public defender’s office. The programs would then be funded with $3.3 million less for next year. The proposal comes by the way of a budget amendment that just surfaced. The proposal has already drawn wide interest. Advocates have already identified a number of "weaknesses" in the proposal:

Administration of the civil indigents representation fund, which provides $3.3 million to the state's four legal aid offices, would be transferred as part of the plan. Funding for the civil fund would be optional after the constitutionally mandated counsel for indigents, guardians ad litem and experts had been paid.

• Statutes and court rules, which are not amended by the proposal, place responsibility for administering these programs and allocations in the courts and the Administrative Office of the Courts.

• The state public defenders office has no expertise in several of the appointed matters which are civil - mental health commitments, appointments of guardians ad litem and counsel in parental termination cases and child support contempt matter or counsel in dependency and neglect and unruly matters.

• Counsel for criminally accused indigents are often appointed because of conflicts with public defenders, creating a dilemma when paired with public defender administration.

• The proposal transfers the responsibility for paying appointed counsel, but makes no provision for transferring the administrative costs associated with administering the funds, perhaps meaning program funds would be further eaten up by administrative costs.

The proposal could first be heard by the Senate Finance Committee Budget Subcommittee as early as Monday afternoon. The subcommittee members are senators "Bo” Watson, Chair; Mark Norris, R-Germantown; and Jim Kyle, D- Memphis.

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