Supreme Court Solicits Comments on Changes to Indigent Representation Compensation

May 29, 2018

The Tennessee Supreme Court issued an Order soliciting comments on proposed amendments to Rule 13, which governs appointment, qualifications, and compensation of counsel for indigent defendants. The proposed rule changes are a result of a $9.7 million increase in indigent defense spending passed by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Bill Haslam. The current compensation rate has not changed in 20 years.

“The Court is very grateful to the General Assembly and the Governor for approving our request for much-needed additional funding in this area,” Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said. “Both the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Tennessee mandate that criminal defendants receive competent legal representation. The Court takes this obligation very seriously.” 

Indigent defendants facing criminal charges who cannot afford an attorney must be provided with legal counsel. In Tennessee, the majority of this representation is provided by local public defender offices. However, when there is a conflict within a public defender office or other circumstances arise, the trial court is required to appoint private counsel to represent an indigent defendant. This arrangement is governed by Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 13, which includes setting the fees paid to these private attorneys. Changes to the rates paid to these private attorneys have not been made since the 1990s.

In 2015, the Supreme Court created the Indigent Representation Task Force to review the manner in which the state is fulfilling its legal obligation to ensure eligible adults and children receive appropriate legal representation. After 18 months of work that included a statewide listening tour with nine stops, the Task Force released its findings in April 2017.

“This new appropriation is a first step toward adopting several major reforms to our indigent representation system recommended by the Commission,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “We will continue our efforts next year and in the coming years to implement additional much-needed reforms recommended by the Commission.”

The proposed changes would raise the hourly rate to a flat $50 an hour for non-capital cases, increasing the current level of $40 an hour to $50 an hour for work done outside of the courtroom. In addition, the proposed changes to Rule 13 also would increase caps that are placed on the total amount of compensation an attorney may receive in a particular case.

The public comment period is open until June 25, 2018. The Court anticipates formally adopting changes to Rule 13 shortly after that deadline. The Order, with instructions on how to comment and a red-lined version of the rule, can be found here.