Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pressures of work and difficult clients

Just a small note today on an illustration of how some sorts of delay can be attributable to the accused, not to the prosecution: Vermont v Brillon [2009] USSC 9 March 2009.

Here there was a three year delay before trial, two years of which were wrongly attributed by the Vermont Supreme Court to the State. These were caused by multiple changes of assigned counsel (at least six) who had difficulties in continuing to act: Mr Brillon fired one, allegedly threatened another's life, and dismissed another for alleged incompetence (no judicial finding was made on that). Not all the changes in counsel were the fault of Mr Brillon, and for some periods he was without assigned counsel. There was, however, no systemic breakdown of the public defender service.

The United States Supreme Court applied the ad hoc balancing exercise required by Barker v. Wingo, 407 U. S. 514 (1972), and held that the Vermont court had made the error of attributing to the state the failure of several assigned counsel to move the case forward, and had failed adequately to take into account the effect of Mr Brillon's disruptive behaviour.

The difficulty with attributing to the State the delays due to requests by assigned counsel for continuances due to their heavy workloads was (held the US SC) that this would become an avenue by which such counsel could seek dismissal on delay grounds, and the courts would come to treat requests for continuances by assigned counsel with skepticism. Then, assigned counsel would be treated differently from privately instructed counsel.

The US Supreme Court held that there would have been no delay issue here if Mr Brillon had not dismissed his first counsel on the eve of trial, and if he had not acted aggressively to his third counsel. The six month period during which he was without counsel was insufficient to base a delay application. The case was remanded to the Vermont court for further proceedings not inconsistent with the USSC's opinion.

We all occasionally have clients who are demanding out of all proportion to the fee their cases will bring. Many unpaid hours can be devoted to ensuring proper instructions are received and proper advice is given. Is it right to pretend that publicly funded counsel have the same ability to tolerate the inevitable frustrations as privately instructed counsel? A State will often be assiduous to restrict the billable hours of its publicly funded lawyers, and, where these are salaried counsel, to maximise their workloads. The courts should be sensitive to detecting when those policies amount to systemic failure.

No comments: