Effective Assistance of Counsel: Implementing the Louisiana Public Defender Act of 2007

On June 17, 2010, NLADA released Effective Assistance of Counsel: Implementing the Louisiana Public Defender Act of 2007, a report concluding that the Louisiana Public Defender Act of 2007 has yet to take root in Louisiana’s 15th Judicial District.

The Louisiana legislature passed the Louisiana Public Defender Act of 2007 (“Act 307”) on a bipartisan and overwhelming vote, with the expressed intent of ensuring that “all indigent criminal defendants who are eligible to have appointed counsel at public expense receive effective assistance of counsel at each critical stage of the proceeding” and “that the right to counsel is delivered by qualified and competent counsel in a manner that is fair and consistent throughout the state.”

Louisiana’s historical deficiencies in ensuring the right to counsel were so ingrained that implementation of Act 307 has proven difficult at times.  Contrary to the legislature’s intent to impose oversight as a means of guaranteeing effective assistance of counsel, the indigent defense office (IDO) of the 15th JDC (Acadia, Lafayette, and Vermilion Parishes) operates with little to no coordinated management.  Attorneys are paid a single flat fee to take an unlimited number of cases, creating a financial conflict between the right of the defendant to competent counsel and the attorney’s take home pay.  Indigent clients facing misdemeanor or traffic offenses carrying jail time may very well not receive counsel at all, despite the state and federal constitutional mandates that they be appointed an attorney.  Defendants are likely to be represented by as many as three or four different attorneys during the course of a single case – typically known as “horizontal representation” and universally decried by all national standards and Act 307. And, many of the attorneys carry excessive caseloads as defined by national standards, before factoring in their private caseloads.

NLADA applauds the Louisiana legislature for its leadership in passing the comprehensive legislation.  Now it is time for the Louisiana Public Defender Board to use the powers given to it under Act 307, including: contracting with all district defenders; regionalizing services in limited areas (like Southwest Louisiana); requiring district defenders in more populated areas to work full-time; and, promulgating more specific standards.

Overcoming the hurdles that prevent adequate implementation of the legislative intent of Act 307 will necessarily involve a concerted effort by advocates in Louisiana at both the state and local level.  NLADA believes that, through several relatively small but significant steps, the LPDB and defense providers throughout the state of Louisiana can fully realize the plan of Act 307 and the guarantees of our state and federal constitutions to ensure the right to counsel for all.

Effective Assistance of Counsel is NLADA’s third report on the right to counsel in the state of Louisiana.  In 2004, NLADA released In Defense of Public Access to Justice: An Assessment of Trial-Level Indigent Defense Services in Louisiana 40 Years After Gideon, studying a single rural parish in Louisiana -- Avoyelles Parish -- to understand how public defense services were provided in non-urban jurisdictions.  This study put the problem on the map for Louisiana policymakers.

NLADA’s report on post-Katrina New Orleans, A Strategic Plan to Ensure Accountability & Protect Fairness in Louisiana’s Criminal Courts, released in September 2006, was the starting point for a legislative advisory group, under the leadership of Senator Danny Martiny, which eventually resulted in Act 307.  The Louisiana Public Defender Act of 2007, signed into law by then-Governor Blanco, created a comprehensive statewide public defender system.  The new system abolished the local judiciary-controlled public defender boards in favor of a statewide independent board with regulatory authority to set and enforce a wide array of standards, including those related to: continuous representation; attorney qualifications; training; attorney performance; client contact; attorney supervision and evaluation; addressing client complaints; data collection and statistical reporting; conflict identification; and, appropriate salary and other compensation.

Publication Date: 2010