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Missouri's public defenders to get help with large caseloads

James Cridland via Flickr

Starting May 1, newer attorneys at private law firms in the St. Louis area will help the state’s overloaded public defender office.

Richard Scherrer, one of the seven founders of the nonprofit Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel, said the help is doubly beneficial. It will let early-career attorneys gain experience, he said, and allow each defendant more time with a lawyer.

The program is supported by the state's public defender office, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge and several judicial circuit judges, according to a news release.

The number of caseloads at the state’s public defender office has grown over the years. This month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a class-action lawsuit alleging such large caseloads are unconstitutional. In addition, Missouri’s top public defender has asked for more state funding.

So far, 21 firms from St. Louis have signed up to participate in the program, Scherrer said.

"It is a wonderful way to get trial experience," Scherrer said, adding that early-career lawyers usually assist established lawyers.

"If a volunteer lawyer has a case he or she — just like the public defenders — is going to want to do the best job they can," Scherrer said. "And in addition, they won't have a hundred other cases as part of their individual caseload. They can focus on that case, they can work it up, they can get it ready for trial."

Scherrer says the coalition stands apart from any political agendas.

“We’re not interested into politics, we’re not interested in any of those issues," Scherrer said. "We want to help, we want to say the Missouri Bar and the Judiciary have stepped up and are doing the best they can with a very challenging environment.”

The program will last for two years, Scherrer said, though if there is demand beyond that, the program could get extended.

"We don't want the Missouri coalition and the enrolled firms and the volunteer lawyers to be taken for granted," Scherrer said.

Follow Marie on Twitter: @germaryblog