Delaware Public Defender’s office operating ‘smoothly’ after split

DOVER — The Public Defender’s Office and the Office of Conflicts Counsel have formally split, with both now residing under a new umbrella agency.

The offices operate separately under the central Office of Defense Services and the day-to-say process continues to run smoothly, according to the chief public defender.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O’Neill

A bill to formally separate the two offices and place them under a central organization passed the General Assembly with little opposition and was signed into law in late May.

The OCC has just two full-time employees while the PDO operates with dozens of lawyers and support staff.

The Office of Defense Services received $21.9 million in its budget this year.

Chief Defender Brendan O’Neill had requested about $22.8 million with the additional government funding to be used for hiring more personnel and raising current employees’ pay.

The OCC was run by the courts until 2011, when then Chief Justice Myron Steele shifted it to the auspices of the PDO. That change created new work for members of the PDO, which focuses on representing indigent clients — those who claim they can’t afford a lawyer.

Like the PDO, the OCC also provides legal assistance to individuals who cannot afford a lawyer. As the name indicates, the Office of Conflicts Counsel is utilized when the PDO cannot represent an accused criminal for ethical reasons.

If two indigent individuals involved in the same case are in need of legal counsel, they cannot both use the Public Defender’s Office. That is due to the conflict of interest that would create within the PDO, officials say. As a result, the second person to apply for a lawyer would be referred to the OCC.

Chief Defender O’Neill described the OCC as “a law practice comprised of multiple independent contractors,” rather than a law firm like the PDO.

While not every state has an agency with a similar function, the “more forward-thinking” ones do, he said.

According to Mr. O’Neill, the change separating the two offices is actually minor.

“Really what the legislation achieved was to formalize what we had already been doing,” he said. “Historically, the Conflicts program and the Public Defender’s Office really operated on separate tracks,” he said, calling the change “more a consolidation than a split.”

The central Office of Defense Services contains administrative staff, human resources, budgetary officials and technology. It also is the first to receive a person seeking legal counsel.

The office then assigns him or her to the Public Defender’s Office or the Office of Conflicts Counsel depending on the circumstances.

So far, the move has worked well, Mr. O’Neill said.

“We think it’s going to result in higher quality of representation for all indigent persons in Delaware,” he said.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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