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September 25, 2023 Top Legal News of the Week

New national report spotlights ABA work on public defense

A groundbreaking report drawing upon the ABA Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System and prior American Bar Association studies contends that nationally public defenders are dangerously overworked and outlines new standards for reducing their caseloads.

A new report highlights the problem of excessive public defender caseloads and is intended to assist evaluating public defense systems.

A new report highlights the problem of excessive public defender caseloads and is intended to assist evaluating public defense systems.

The report by a team of attorneys and researchers from the ABA and other national organizations, including the RAND Corporation and the National Center for State Courts, found that public defense attorneys are forced to handle far too many cases each year. The result is that defenders are unable to provide adequate and constitutionally guaranteed legal representation to their clients.

“Public defenders and other providers of indigent defense grapple with an overwhelming caseload that exceeds the reasonable capacity for effective representation, but the available data about the magnitude of this issue has been inadequate and outdated,” ABA President Mary Smith said. “This report — which builds on earlier ABA initiatives like the recent rollout of 10 principles for improving the public defense system — offers stakeholders a roadmap for how to genuinely ensure equitable justice for every individual.”

The study marks the culmination of a comprehensive analysis contained in 17 previous state-level studies, many of which were conducted by the ABA. The effort underscores the widespread problem of excessive defender caseloads and is intended to assist public defense agencies, policymakers and other stakeholders in evaluating public defense systems.

Researchers behind the report used empirical evidence to develop new consensus-based standards for estimating how many cases public defenders should take on and show that adopting the new guidelines would allow lawyers to devote more time to each of their clients.

In August, the ABA House of Delegates adopted a major revision of the Ten Principles to provide more detail and clarity to the guidance last updated in 2002. The revised principles included updated standards on caseloads that reflect the results of the report. Courts, legislatures and public defense agencies have looked to the principles in developing decisions, laws and policies, and in 2010 then-Attorney General Eric Holder called the principles “the building blocks of a well-functioning public defender system.”

The ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, which has issued seven state-level public defense workload studies, assisted in the preparation of the national report, which was funded by Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic organization.

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