Legal association president wants more public notice on contingency fee lawyers

By John Sammon | Aug 1, 2017

SACRAMENTO – The president of the Civil Justice System of California (CJAC) said he intends to craft a new bill to submit to the California State Legislature that would require greater transparency, public notice, from cities and counties that hire outside private attorneys to go after statute violators based on a “contingency fee,” in other words, only paid upon the successful outcome of a case.

“The current situation as it is can lead to abuse,” John Doherty told the Northern California Record.     

The CJAC is tasked with making sure the legal system in California is fair and balanced.

District attorneys sometimes hire outside private attorneys to pursue consumer protection cases.

“The trend is growing with state and counties hiring private attorneys without paying them, allowing them to collect attorney fees trying to find a violator,” Doherty said.

Doherty said enforcement agencies sometimes believe they don’t have the resources to do the enforcement they’d like to do, and so they deputize private contingency fee attorneys to go after violators, thus potentially reducing the oversight of elected or appointed officials, and instead replacing it with an attorney who might pursue a profit motive.

However, there are cases where an agency may need extra help, he added.

“If, for example, you have a major polluter and a small city doesn’t have the ability to catch the violators or doesn’t understand all the state and federal regulations, then it might be warranted for them to hire someone,” Doherty said.

Doherty said he would like to see public officials be choosy about when to hire private attorneys.

Currently it is unknown what percentage of cities and counties have entered into such agreements. Lawmakers only find out after lawsuits are filed. Doherty said this was not a good way to track such an important policy.   

An earlier attempt to craft a bill in the California General Assembly asking local governments to demonstrate a need before hiring private attorneys was unsuccessful. Doherty said a new attempt will be made that would call for greater public disclosure, and require city or county officials to demonstrate that the hiring of outside legal counsel would be in the best public interest.              

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