Judicial District 7 Public Defender Office opens in January

Published 9:02 am Friday, December 22, 2023

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The new year will welcome a new entity that will fill a void in the number of defense attorneys available to represent court-involved citizens in Judicial District 7 (Bertie, Halifax, Hertford, and Northampton counties).

Thanks to funding appropriated in the recent state budget, Judicial District 7 officials have created a Public Defender Office.

Currently, a Chief Public Defender is being hired to manage the new office, which will be staffed with 12 attorneys and six staff positions. The Chief Public Defender will determine how to staff all positions.

The Public Defender will be set in place in January of 2024 with the main office being located at the Northampton County Courthouse in Jackson. There will be satellite offices will be located in Bertie, Hertford, and Halifax counties.

The Public Defender is an appointed position and will be appointed every 4 years.

Public defenders provide legal representation at state expense for persons who cannot afford to hire private counsel but are entitled to counsel under constitutional or statutory authority in cases ranging from criminal charges to civil commitment, juvenile proceedings, or loss of parental rights. In counties not served by a public defender, the courts rely on local attorneys who volunteer to provide these services at a specified hourly rate that is often considerably lower than customary rates for most private attorneys.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judges Brenda G. Branch and Cy A. Grant stated that the implementation of the Public Defender Office will be a huge asset for the courts to move cases expeditiously by increasing the number of attorneys available in court to represent indigent citizens.

They added that this Public Defender Office was obtained through extensive collaborations among Judicial Staff in all four counties, The Administrative Office of the Courts, Indigent Defense Services, The Defense Bar, county citizens, and local legislators: State House Representative Michael Wray and State Senator Bobby Hanig by advocating in the legislature for approval in this past budget.

In 2022, Bertie, Halifax, Hertford, and Northampton counties received a report from the Administrative Office of the Courts finding these counties were a severe legal desert and there were not enough defense attorneys available to support their court-involved citizens. At that time, Judge Branch collaborated with the Administrative Office of The Courts (AOC), and Judge Grant to determine what was needed to support this severe legal desert.

During their conversations, the idea of a Public Defender Office was discussed, prompting Judge Branch and Judge Grant to do research to determine how the districts could qualify for a Public Defender Office. The Judges spoke with Mary Pollard, Director of Indigent Defense Services, in researching how to qualify for a Public Defender Office. They also collaborated with Senator Bobby Hanig and Representative Michael Wray and sent emails and met with the local Defense Bar to get their input regarding a local Public Defender Office.

After speaking with the Bar, it was agreed that a Public Defender Office would be helpful for the area. Judge Branch asked Representative Wray to advocate in this past legislative session for a Public Defender Office for Bertie, Halifax, Hertford, and Northampton counties. As a result of tireless efforts of Rep. Wray, Senator Bobby Hanig, AOC officials, and Pollard, the Public Defender Office for Judicial District 7 was approved in the Legislative Budget.

The addition of this new office for Judicial District 7 means that North Carolina now has a total of 25 Public Defender Offices, serving a total of 60 counties in the state.