State must pay cost of regional conflict counsels

Historic City News has learned that what could have been some good news for those struggling to save money in St. Johns County’s budget, turns out to have more positive impact for larger, metropolitan areas of the state.

An appeals court has ruled that the state, not Florida’s counties, should have to pay for regional conflict counsel — lawyers to represent indigent defendants when the public defender has a conflict. The decision by the First District Court of Appeals is a major victory for counties which have been saddled with the cost.

Jim Purdy, Public Defender for the Seventh Judicial Circuit which includes St. Johns, Putnam, Flagler and Volusia counties, told Historic City News today that although “conflicts” occur frequently, in our judicial circuit private attorneys whose fees are already paid by the state, represent indigent defendants where conflicts exist.

According to Purdy, regional conflict counsels were established by the legislature about two years ago. Jeffrey Dean, in Seminole County, is the counsel for our circuit — as well as circuits 5, 9 and 18.

The constitutional office of Public Defender maintains an office in each of the counties within his jurisdiction. The county must furnish the Public Defender with adequate offices for that purpose. In St. Johns County, Purdy’s offices are in the courthouse annex — space that was previously occupied by the Board of County Commissioners.

In cases where the Public Defender must withdraw from a case because of a conflict, Jeffrey Dean’s office is contacted and a private defense attorney is hired; their legal fees being paid by the State. In some metropolitan circuits, the regional conflict counsels were billing the counties for office space — the same as the Public Defender.

Those counties sued on the basis that they had no obligation to provide private counsel with office space and expenses as they do for the public defender and other constitutional officers such as the sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, clerk of court and supervisor of elections.

In St. Johns County, Purdy says, the private attorneys that are hired when his office has a conflict generally work out of their existing private law offices and therefore have no reason to bill the county for office expenses.

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