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ND indigent defense attorneys see caseloads spike

BISMARCK – The number of court cases involving clients who can’t afford legal services climbed in all areas of North Dakota during the last fiscal year, with large increases seen in northern judicial districts, the head of the state’s Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents said Tuesday.

In the Northwest Judicial District alone, felony cases assigned to indigent defense attorneys jumped by nearly 30 percent from fiscal year 2014 to 2015, from 760 cases to 983 cases, and have skyrocketed by more than 500 percent since 2010’s count of 162 felony cases.

Overall, cases assigned to indigent defense attorneys increased by 18 percent in 2015 in the Northwest Judicial District, 24 percent in the North Central Judicial District and 44 percent in the Northeast Judicial District, compared to an 11 percent increase statewide, from 12,180 cases to 13,511 cases.

Commission Executive Director H. Jean Delaney told the Legislature’s interim Judiciary Committee that she expects the numbers will increase again in fiscal year 2016.

Delaney said more case assignments mean more costs for the agency, which suffered a budget shortfall during the 2013-15 biennium and received additional funding for 2015-17, including seven new full-time positions – three of them attorneys in Bismarck, Williston and Watford City.

The agency provides services through 20 full-time public defenders employed at eight offices across the state, plus about 60 private attorneys contracted on a monthly basis. Delaney said finding attorneys in the state’s oil patch is still a challenge but has improved as housing prices have come down.

“We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, hopefully,” she said.

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