High caseloads for attorneys across nation opens discussion on access to legal representation in ND

Public defenders
Public defenders(KFYR-TV)
Published: Feb. 3, 2023 at 5:05 PM CST
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - In some areas across the country, those facing battles in court are having trouble finding representation. Shortages of attorneys, especially public defenders, funding and resources have created what some legal professionals say is a “crisis in the West.”

When someone’s charged with a crime and they can’t afford an attorney, that’s where public defenders come in. Public defenders also step in for other cases too, like when parental rights are in question, or someone is past due on child support and jail is a possibly remedy.

Travis Finck works for the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents. He says their 20 full-time public defenders and dozens of contracted firms take cases in seven offices across the state. Several factors have led to a spike in cases.

“You know as the legislature is in session right now, if we see an increase in the number of things that are made to have more significant penalties, often times people may want an attorney, where they didn’t want one before. They would have just handled it themselves,” said Travis Finck, executive director for the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents. He says there was a dip in caseloads during the pandemic.

“There weren’t as many in-person investigations going on. Or sometimes prosecutors were delayed getting things charged,” said Finck.

Now, caseloads have bounced back and then some.

Pre-pandemic ND public defenders took, on average, around 15,000 cases a year. That number dropped to 14,400 in 2020. It’s rebounded to more than 16,000 cases in 2022.

The department says they keep a close eye on attorneys to make sure caseloads remain manageable and the public can be properly represented.

“We’re in that process of making sure and advising our clients as to what their constitutional rights are. They’re the rights that our country is based upon: the right to trial, the right to have an attorney and the right to be free,” said Finck.

In a message to the Legislature, the Commission said it’s been struggling to recruit. In the 2022 Annual Report, Travis Fink said “there’s no certainty in indigent defense other than uncertainty.”

This year, the Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents hopes to encourage more North Dakota attorneys to become involved with defending the public.