Carol Hanson, district public defender for Howard and Carroll counties, calls them "gray-area cases."

They involve defendants whose assets and income disqualify them from being represented by a public defender but who can't afford the full fees of a private lawyer.

Last month, members of the Howard County Public Defender's Office and the Howard County Bar Association came up with what they believe will be a solution to those defendants' dilemma.

They established a special criminal panel, a list of 20 Howard lawyers who are willing to represent "gray-area" defendants at a reduced fee.

"We hope it'll protect the people's right to counsel and lead to an efficient processing of cases," said Master in Chancery Bernard A. Raum, who was chairman of the ad hoc committee that developed the special criminal panel.

Hanson, who proposed the idea five years ago, said, "There was a time when someone would come to us, then go to three attorneys and get turned down, and have to come back to us . . . . I'm happy it's here."

Last year, Hanson said, the 11 lawyers in the Howard and Carroll public defender's offices took about 5,000 cases.

Five to 10 percent of the clients who want to be represented by a public defender do not qualify, according to Hanson, who is responsible for determining whether defendants are indigent.

She said she considers a potential client's income, number of dependents and the seriousness of the charge in making her decision.

Hanson said that defendants who do not qualify for a public defender and cannot pay a private lawyer's full rate often show up for their trials without representation, sometimes forcing judges to postpone their cases repeatedly.

Now, however, those defendants are given a "letter of denial" by the public defender's offices and are pointed toward the Howard County Lawyer Referral Service, which leads them to one of the lawyers who have agreed to be on the panel.

Lawyers became part of the panel by filling out an application sent to Howard County Bar Association members last November. Janet Filtzer, executive director of the bar association, said that she expects more lawyers to join the special panel.

Lawyers who sign up for the panel are promised that their names will be kept confidential.

Filtzer said that about 15 people have been referred to the panel since December and that she expects to make more frequent referrals as word of its existence spreads.

"A lot of these people are desperate," Filtzer said. "They don't know what to do, where to turn. Some are practically in tears when they call."

Raum said the thing that might temper the panel's effectiveness is the negotiation of fees.

"It's a real touchy thing," Raum said. "There will come a point where an attorney will look at an individual's income, and say, 'You've got to pay the full rate.' "

He said he hopes that being forced to pay even a small amount for legal services will help some defendants understand the seriousness of their situation.

"You're not talking about paying much, just paying something," he said.

"It becomes serious when you're paying for it."

One lawyer on the panel said he signed up because "it's a matter of filling a need. It is a real bind for a group of individuals who do not qualify for a public defender but cannot afford private representation. I have no problem with agreeing to set a reduced fee."

The lawyer said he believes the program will "help the system."

"Someone who doesn't know what their rights are may plead just guilty," the lawyer said. "I think judges would prefer to try cases where the defendant has representation."