A City Councilman is pushing back on a plan by Mayor Nutter's administration to change how court-appointed lawyers are provided to poor Philadelphians through a new Office of Conflict Counsel.
Councilman Dennis O'Brien said in an interview today that he was planning to introduce two pieces of legislation that would provide better accountability for the proposed office. Unlike some other city contracts, O'Brien said, legal services for the poor involve Constitutional rights.
"This model does not guarantee that Constitutional rights are protected," the councilman said. "That is our mission, and we are committed to it."
The city is contemplating contracting with an ex-prosecutor who would set up a new private law firm to handle the legal representation of Philadelphians involved in family-court cases or in criminal cases when the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Community Legal Services or the Support Center for Child Advocates is already representing another person in the case.
One of O'Brien's proposed bills would require the appointment of a quality-control auditor to ensure the legal representation "is living up to national ABA [American Bar Association] standards," an O'Brien aide, Miriam Enriquez, said in a joint interview. According to the draft ordinance, the auditor would be independent of the law firm, have been practicing law for at least seven years, and an expert in indigent defense. The managing director, who works for the mayor, would nominate the quality control auditor.
The ordinance also would require a detailed audit of the allocation of city taxpayers' dollars to the law firm and how the money was spent. Disclosure of the "job titles, job descriptions, resumes and performance reviews of all owners, employees and any other person that has a financial stake in the contract" would also be required, according to the draft legislation.
A second bill would ask Philadelphia voters to approve a change to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter (once approved by City Council) next May. If enacted, the charter amendment would require City Council approval of every contract involving the expenditure of $100,000 or more on legal representation for poor Philadelphians. Currently, contracts that are for less than one year, at any amount, don't need City Council approval.
Mark McDonald, Nutter's press secretary, declined to comment because the legislation has not yet been introduced.
O'Brien's chief of staff, Matthew Braden, said that the legislation was being introduced because Nutter and his chief of staff, Everett Gillison, did not seem willing to alter course on the conflict counsel contract after a meeting with O'Brien and his aides last month.
The meeting was held after City Council convened a hearing in October on the plan to go to the new model.
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