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Covington’s Pro Bono Legal Effort Leads to Historic Reform of Virginia’s Indigent Defense System

March 8, 2007

WASHINGTON, DC, March 8, 2007 — Covington & Burling’s effort to improve the quality of indigent defense in Virginia yielded results last week when the General Assembly approved landmark legislation permitting judges to waive the unreasonably low, mandatory caps on legal fees paid to lawyers representing poor criminal defendants in Virginia’s circuit courts. Under the previous system, attorneys representing indigent defendants charged with a felony punishable by life imprisonment could be paid only $1,235; and defendants facing a felony charge carrying a sentence of up to twenty years could be paid only $445.

For many years, the caps had been criticized as encouraging a “meet and plea” routine of processing criminal cases that denied poor defendants their constitutional right to meaningful and effective assistance of counsel. Despite repeated calls for reform, the caps remained in place, earning Virginia the reputation as the worst indigent defense system in the country.

Working with its pro bono client, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Covington spearheaded a multi-year effort to make the constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel a meaningful reality in Virginia. Covington initiated and supported a statewide study documenting the pernicious effects of the caps on the quality of legal representation, mounted a legislative and educational campaign, and prepared the class action lawsuit that ultimately persuaded Virginia's Republican Attorney General to join with its Democratic Governor to push through the reforms enacted this year.

“Covington’s legal prominence and commitment to the cause of equal justice were instrumental to securing passage of this historic reform,” said Steve Benjamin, a NACDL Board member and nationally known criminal defense lawyer based in Richmond.

The Covington team includes John Hall, Sarah Wilson, Josh Carpenter, Brent Starks, Hope Hamilton, Jodi Steiger, Dan Suleiman, and Virginia Desilets.

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