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Assigned-counsel contract remains in limbo

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CANTON — After nine months of negotiation, St. Lawrence County remains without a contract for assigned-counsel coverage with the county Bar Association although indigent defendants are receiving lawyers through what was to have been a temporary solution.

The contract stalled over the lack of a detailed plan that the Bar Association is working on for approval by the state Office of Court Administration, said Michael C. Crowe, county attorney.

County legislators routinely ask Mr. Crowe for an update on the contract but he has little new to say.

“The legislators were disappointed it has not happened sooner,” Mr. Crowe said. “It could be a while.”

Bar Association President Paula A. Michaud did not return calls for comment.

The problem with how indigent defendants received attorneys surfaced when the state Office of Indigent Legal Services refused to allow the county to install grant-funded software.

At the time, the county’s indigent defense coordinator worked out of the county Board of Legislators office but the state wanted the work done under an attorney’s direct supervision to avoid violating attorney/client privilege.

As a solution, county officials created a legal secretary’s position in Mr. Crowe’s office to handle the clerical work for assigned-counsel cases. The contract with the Bar Association is supposed to create an assigned-counsel administrator who will make the selection of attorneys for clients.

Assigned counsel is the third leg of the system to ensure the poor have legal representation in criminal cases. If determined eligible, their case heads first to the public defender. If that office cannot provide representation, the case goes to the conflict defender. It is only if there is a conflict there that an attorney from the assigned-counsel pool is designated.

Without an administrator for the program, Mr. Crowe’s office has picked up the slack.

“The assignment’s always done by the judge. The legal secretary assists the court,” Mr. Crowe said. “We don’t do the assigning. The judge has the authority.”

It is unclear whether an official plan previously existed that was state-approved.

“There may have been a plan many years ago,” Mr. Crowe said. “I haven’t seen a current plan unless the contract was the plan because it is very detailed.”

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