Missouri’s lawyers who represent indigent clients face the possibility that their workloads will force them into positions where they could face disciplinary actions for violating professional rules. A study of the State Public Defender system says no new positions have been added to the system in six years at a time when the caseload has increased by 12,000. Missouri is 47th in the nation in funding for its Public Defender system. Every other state has seen increased funding in the program during the last five years. The averarge Public Defender is handling 289 cases.
The legal ethics counsel for the state discipline officer says overloaded Public Defenders might violate professional standards for adequate representation. Sara Rittman says the rules that most commonly come into play are rules requiring proper preparation, rules on moving the case forward, and an obligation to keep clients informed about what is happening. But she says those things can fall through the cracks "fairly rapidly" when a Public Defender has an excessive case load.
The special study of the system says Public Defenders are paid about $34,000 to $52,000 a year. The low salaries coupled with the heavy and increasing workload are considered key reasons the turnover rate among Public Defenders in Missouri is 20 percent a year.