Article by Rick Green submitted by Dee King
On the radio one morning not long ago, I heard a probate judge say he has "to get on my knees and beg lawyers" to take the cases that come before his court.
"They are not getting rich on that any more than you get rich on jury duty," Brookfield Probate Judge Joseph Secola told WTIC 1080 on the Ray and Diane show.
Why, to listen to this, you'd think that nobody makes out like a bandit in the 19th-century realm of probate court.
This is hogwash.
While Judge Secola is correct in stating that lawyers who are appointed to represent poor people can make no more than $50 an hour working on the estates of the indigent, there is far more to this sordid picture.
It's why Chase T. Rogers, chief justice of the state supreme court, must select a reformer to succeed James Lawlor, who is being forced out of his job as administrator of probate court.
Probate is a place where even if you have prepared all the proper paper and legal work, your estate can still be slapped with thousands of dollars in court fees after you die. How else are they going to pay for the 117 courts and health insurance for the judges and their employees?
After all, Connecticut has more than 100 probate judges — some earning full benefits and $40,000 or $50,000 a year for part-time work — in a sprawling bureaucracy where probate courts are as common as your neighborhood Dunkin' Donuts.
Probate is a world where being a "court-appointed" lawyer in a case with even a meager estate can mean years of profitable legal work, including the chance to bill at hundreds of dollars an hour — if your client isn't deemed indigent. Court-appointed, by the way, means the judge tells you who your lawyer is.
In this Kafkaesque realm, this means the lawyers get paid, even when the judge makes a mistake and appoints a conservator and attorney when he has no business doing this. That happened in North Haven with Margot Claus, an elderly and sick German woman brought to Connecticut by a distant relative. Claus, now back home in Germany, was recently ordered to pay for a lawyer who should never have been appointed in the first place, who didn't even support her desire to return home.
In another recent case out of the Berlin court, Paul Czepiga, a lawyer who served as a court-appointed conservator in the long-running case of a Lucille Follacchio, has collected more than $77,000 in fees. There are additional pending bills for another $21,000, according to Legal Aid lawyers challenging Czepiga's fees.
Czepiga did not return a call for comment Monday. His fees include charges of $19 merely to fax letters and send an e-mail.
All of this is why it's so important that the next administrator of our probate system continue reforms begun by Judge Lawlor.
For starters, Judge Rogers should appoint a reform-minded judge who will demand more oversight of courts. There must be fewer courts that are open longer hours and which are run by judges trained as lawyers. Just like real courts.
"If you stop the gouging, you stop making this such a lucrative place for people to operate in," said Veronica Halpine, a Legal Aid lawyer in Hartford. "You have these little old ladies … they get their little tiny stash and it gets gobbled up. You are charging attorney's fees to manage a little old lady's life when she is under lock and key.
"People are making out like bandits. It's acceptable practice."
Under our largely independent probate system that many judges want to preserve, it's virtually impossible to track what is happening from one court to the next. How convenient.
"We don't know," said Lawlor, the soon-to-be ousted probate administrator, when I asked.
It's time we learn a lot more about what goes on behind closed doors in probate. It starts with appointing a new court administrator who is interested in more than preserving this centuries-old boys and girls club.
Rick Green's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org