Juvenile Judges Issue Statement on Indigent Representation

The Executive Committee of the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges issued the following statement on indigent representation:

            On behalf of the juvenile court judges and magistrates of our state’s ninety-eight juvenile courts, the Executive Committee of the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges hereby announces its full support of the current efforts to raise funding to increase the hourly rate of compensation paid to court-appointed attorneys in juvenile court. 

            Our Supreme Court recently announced its intention to ask the General Assembly for additional funding to address a problem in our state’s judicial system.  Juvenile court is where the many problems facing our state’s children are addressed.  Juvenile court not only handles delinquency and unruly cases, some of which require court-appointed lawyers, but also all cases involving suspected child abuse. 

            Each child abuse case requires at least one appointed lawyer from the private bar; …every case.  Many child abuse cases require three or more court-appointed attorneys.  Without the participation of lawyers from the private bar, all child abuse cases in juvenile court would stop.   These cases would go nowhere or would have to be dismissed.  Children would not be removed from danger but would be forced to continue their lives in fear and pain. 

            Many adoption cases start in juvenile court.  Without the participation of the private bar, these adoption cases would also grind to a halt.  As with child abuse cases, each case seeking termination of parental rights (the first step in most adoption cases) requires at least one court-appointed lawyer, often three or more.  Without private lawyers, many children would be delayed in finding a permanent home, many prospective adoptive families would be denied the opportunity to love a child, to enrich a child’s life, to become a more complete family.

            Private attorneys are crucial for abused or unwanted children.  Unfortunately, many attorneys do not accept appointments in juvenile court due to the inadequacy of the reimbursement.  Simply stated, many court-appointed attorneys lose money taking these cases.  They are hard cases and often last for years.  There is absolutely no financial incentive for lawyers to take these cases.

            The hourly reimbursement rate for court-appointed lawyers has not been raised since 1997 (the in-court and out-of-court rates were equalized recently).  In 1997, Bill Clinton was our President, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was $8200, and the average price of a gallon of gas was $1.23.  Of the states that set the compensation rate for court-appointed lawyers, Tennessee ranks last; …dead last.  That’s twenty-six years without a raise. 

            Our Council looks forward to working with the Supreme Court, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Legislature, and the Governor’s Office to address this issue.