City Council on Monday held a four hour investigative hearing into the city's issuance of a Request for Proposals for a single law firm to represent clients who can't be appointed public defenders due to conflicts of interest.
The court currently chooses from a pool lawyers an attorney for defendants who are unable to be represented by a public defender, such as clients in cases with multiple co-defendants who are also seeking court-appointed counsel.
"Right, now we have the equivalent of many hundreds of private law firms that are doing the work," Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison said Monday.
"What we are trying to do is say that we would have one law firm that would take up the bulk of appointments."
But that decision created waves among members of the city's political and legal communities, who claimed the process was opaque and excluded stakeholders.
"The city kept secret the process of choosing and evaluating firms involved in bidding," attorney Gary Server said.
"The city kept secret the process from City Council and the public. The city's choice to provide the legal services model will operate in complete secrecy. It will pick and choose which attorneys to hire in complete secrecy."
Because the RFP is for a one-year contract, it does not require City Council approval.
"The more I drill down, the more I believe this process has been tainted by collusion and a lack of transparency," said Councilman Dennis O'Brien, who called the hearing.
Attorney Jeffrey Lindy of Lindy & Tauber called the city's decision "a recipe for disaster," noting the law firm that wins the contract will work for a fixed price and will have neither the resources nor the incentive to provide adequate representation.
"It's an absurdity," he said.
"It's like taking the Defender Association of Philadelphia and privatizing it. … You can't take poor people and have them represented by a for profit firm like this."
"The main problem with a 'for profit model' is the stated purpose of making a profit," said Ellen Greenlee of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
"The temptation will always exist to move cases along, to seek a quick disposition, to save the expense of investigation, mitigation, hiring experts – all of which impact the bottom line."
Other concerns raised revolved around the contract's budget, which many felt is inadequate to ensure attorneys receive manageable caseloads and said doesn't provide for support staff like social workers and paralegals.
"The city is merely substituting one group of overworked underpaid attorneys for another which will ultimately be even more so," Attorney Karen D. Williams said.
Attendees of the hearing also said that, were the city to choose lawyers for defendants, clients dissatisfied with their representation could sue Philadelphia.
They further questioned whether the city has the right to perform such a function in the first place.
Despite witnesses' dissatisfaction with the purported decision to choose a for profit law firm to undertake the task, representatives of Mayor Michael Nutter's administration declined to confirm that fact or provide any other details, saying a contract had not yet been signed.
"We have not issued a notice to proceed or a selection," Gillison said.
"Therefore, I'm not going to suggest one way or the other in the hypothetical if a private law firm should win."
He said the city has been working on the proposal for over a year and has tried to respond to fears raised "openly and honestly."
"This, I believe, is a matter that will end up being a very good thing for the legal community, and for poor people in general," he said.