After learning one of their attorneys was working with a suspended license, the Defender Association of Philadelphia — which represents the city’s poorest defendants — tightened internal rules to avoid further problems, the association wrote in a response to a federal whistleblower lawsuit filed earlier this month.
The response, filed Monday, comes nearly two weeks after attorney Christopher Welsh, the association’s deputy defender, in charge of practice operations and systems development, sued his employer. In his complaint, Welsh claimed he got demoted for reporting a colleague who continued representing juvenile clients in court even through the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania had administratively suspended him in October 2015.
While the case might strike some as the internal squabbling of one city business, the nonprofit association represents 70 percent of everyone arrested in Philadelphia, focusing on abused and neglected children, juvenile delinquents, and adult criminal defendants.
In its response to Welsh’s lawsuit, the association countered that the unnamed attorney in question represented clients about 17 times during his suspension — not the hundreds of times Welsh claimed in his lawsuit.
Further, the association consulted with an ethics expert to determine how to respond to the suspended-attorney situation, sent letters to the clients he’d represented while suspended, notified its malpractice insurer to alert them to potential claims, reviewed all staff attorneys’ licenses to confirm they were valid and active, and created a new policy requiring attorneys to give Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey copies of their bar licenses each year, according to the filing.
Attorneys who are suspended aren’t legally allowed to represent defendants. In fact, practicing law without a license is a misdemeanor of the third degree.
The unnamed attorney in question got suspended for failing to pay his annual registration fee to the Pennsylvania bar, according to the association. Shortly after the suspension, he went out on extended medical leave and returned to a position that doesn’t involve direct representation of clients, according to the association.
Attorney Stephen G. Console, who represents Welsh, declined to address the association’s claims, saying only: “Chris Welsh was courageous and did the right thing here. The complaint speaks for itself. All the details will come out at trial.”
A pretrial conference is set for Oct. 3.