Bar News - February 15, 2017
Bar Governance: Board Supports Right to Counsel for Hearings on Ability to Pay
By: Kristen Senz
The NH Bar Association Board of Governors voted Jan. 19 to support proposed legislation that would grant indigent criminal defendants the right to counsel at hearings aimed at determining their ability to pay fees and fines.
Albert “Buzz” Scherr, a law professor at the UNH School of Law, attended the board’s meeting to discuss the background of the proposal and ask for the board’s support. The legislative proposal stems from a report Scherr worked on with the New Hampshire Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which found that in a limited number of cases, judges were sending poor defendants who could not afford to pay fees and fines to jail, without a hearing to determine ability to pay.
A set of proposed rule-changes aimed at eliminating this practice went before the NH Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Rules and was largely adopted, but the proposed right to counsel was not. As a result, Senate Bill 200 was drafted, with sponsorship by three senators (Sens. Feltes, Bradley and Carson) and three House members (Reps. Rouillard, Berch and Pearson). Scherr said he expects that about 10-15 cases per year would require counsel at a hearing on a defendant’s ability to pay. About two-thirds of those would be handled by the NH Public Defender, so the cost of the proposed bill would be negligible, he said, adding that New Hampshire jail superintendents have expressed support for the measure.
Also at the meeting, the Board of Governors voted to accept recommendations of the NHBA Legislation Committee. Bar members can view the bills the association is tracking and positions the board has taken through Legislation Watch, a free tool accessible through the NHBA website. John MacIntosh, who represents the association’s interests at the Legislature, said that in total, about 800 bills would be filed this session.
Board member Ed Philpot reported that the NHBA had been selected to participate in the NH Center for Nonprofits Sustainability Institute, a six-month program designed to help staff and board members solidify and operationalize strategic goals for the organization. The board also heard an update on efforts to launch an online pro bono service portal.
The board’s next meeting was scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16.