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Overburdened public defenders, legal aid lawyers air concerns before House panel

Minnesota’s public defenders are overworked and underpaid, and the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the challenges they face when representing clients at criminal trials.

Similar challenges face the state’s legal aid lawyers, who provide free legal services to low-income people in civil court cases.

Both groups gave presentations on how they serve their clients to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee Thursday.

Each were preludes to budget requests the agencies are expected to make to the committee in the coming weeks, so discussions also touched on funding issues.

Board of Public Defense

“Public defenders cannot refuse cases,” Kevin Kajer, chief administrator of the Board of Public Defense, said during his presentation. Both the U.S. and state constitutions require that anyone charged with an offense punishable by loss of liberty is entitled to representation by a lawyer.

That mandate means caseloads are much heavier than those of most private criminal attorneys, said Kajer, resulting in a rate of attorney staff turnover in his office of more than 10% annually.

Below-average starting salaries compound that issue. Kajer said a first-year starting salary for a public defender is about $55,000 a year, which is at least $10,000 lower than a typical starting salary in the private sector.

Other factors have made practicing law much more complicated, Kajer said, and add to a public defender’s workload.

Some of those include the expanded use of new forensic and other technologies, such as police body cameras and drones, which add a great deal of time that a public defender must spend on many clients.

Kajer noted, for example, a month of video evidence gathered by St. Paul police is the equivalent of 250 full-length movies. To adequately defend a client, Kajer said, public defenders must now spend a larger proportion of their time reviewing such footage.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also added to the workload of public defenders across the state, Kajer said, noting in-person court hearings now take three times as long due to covid-related health protections put in place.


Civil Legal Services

“Legal assistance is critical when seeking justice,” said Dori Streit, executive director of Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota. “But in civil types of cases, if you can’t pay for a lawyer, then justice truly feels out of reach.”

Civil legal services, or legal aid, provides free legal help to low-income people with civil (non-criminal) legal problems, such as eviction, foreclosure, child support, custody disputes, and domestic violence.

In her presentation, Streit noted that of the agency’s $45.9 million annual budget, 32%, or $14.7 million, is funded through the General Fund.

But that money is insufficient to serve all the people asking for legal aid, said Streit, as more than half of those requesting legal assistance have to be turned away.

Legal aid lawyers are also overworked and underpaid, said Drew Schaffer, executive director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. New legal aid attorneys receive a starting annual salary of about $51,000, he said, creating an approximate $15,000 wage gap with new private-sector attorneys.

In 2019, 60% of clients receiving legal aid were nonwhite, said Streit, and the COVID-19 pandemic has “caused disproportionate harm to the client communities we serve.”

In response to the pandemic, legal aid agencies have implemented new telephone legal hotlines and virtual clinics, Streit said, and have begun planning for an “overwhelming amount” of filings that will arise after the moratorium on evictions ends.

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