Defense attorneys are available to handle arraignments on weekends in Southampton Town, Southampton Village and Riverhead Town Justice Courts under a one-year pilot program that is part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of indigent defendants.

Carl Irace, an East Hampton attorney who is one of five lawyers participating in the program, said that before the initiative started on July 9, no lawyers were available for such defendants, which he said contradicted their right to representation at a critical stage in their case.

The suit was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

It was decided in the 2014 settlement that attorneys are to be provided “for every critical stage of a proceeding,” said Irace, a former deputy attorney for East Hampton Town. He said that includes arraignments — a first appearance by a person charged before a judge or magistrate — when pleas are often entered and judges make decisions about bail.

“It’s critical any time a decision is being made that can affect your liberty,” Irace said of having legal representation.

He added that for those without an attorney, the judge can discuss the defendants’ rights and try to answer their questions but, “The judge has a specific role and that’s not it.”

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Mariko Hirose, the NYCLU’s lead counsel for the lawsuit, agreed that the support of an attorney is crucial.

“It’s such a scary moment when you’re charged with a crime, whether you’re innocent or not,” Hirose said. “An attorney is needed to help you navigate the process from the beginning.”

Irace handles weekend arraignments in Southampton Town and Southampton Village, and said that as part of the settlement the program is to be expanded to East Hampton and four other New York State counties — Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler and Washington.

Irace said it has not been determined when the program will begin in East Hampton. He added that Legal Aid Society attorneys only represent indigent defendants during the week.

Eileen Powers, who handles weekend arraignments in Riverhead, has a private practice in town and is a former deputy bureau chief of the Major Crimes Bureau of the Suffolk district attorney’s office. She noted that having counsel is a fundamental right under the U.S. and New York State constitutions.

“The lack of counsel for indigent defendants on the East End on weekends and non-court days has been an issue discussed by attorneys and judges alike for as long as I can remember,” Powers said.