MARTINEZ -- Contra Costa County's long-standing practice of assigning defense attorneys to indigent criminal defendants after -- and not at -- their initial court appearance has resulted in a federal class action lawsuit against Public Defender Robin Lipetzky.

Point Richmond attorney Christopher Martin, one of two attorneys who filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Oakland on Dec. 21, says the illegal practice could cost the county a minimum of $4,000 for each defendant whose civil rights were violated.

"We don't know how many plaintiffs there are, but I anticipate there are thousands," Martin said Monday.

The lawsuit alleges that indigent, in-custody defendants are left in County Jail without an attorney for five to 13 days after their first court appearance, in violation of the right to assistance of counsel from the time one first faces a judge.

"To my knowledge, Contra Costa County is the only major county in the state that doesn't provide representation at the first appearance, or shortly thereafter," Martin said. "The only other counties that don't are the small, rural counties that don't have the funding or a public defender's office."

Lipetzky, Contra Costa's appointed public defender since 2010, said Monday she could not comment on pending litigation. She has long been fighting for money to add more attorneys to her underfunded office, which has had to refuse clients at least once a month since November 2010 because of a budget and workload-driven attorney shortage.

Lipetzky said she has been authorized to hire two new attorneys and paralegals to staff arraignment courtrooms pending vote by Contra Costa supervisors on Jan. 15 on state prison realignment funds.

In addition to damages for past and current criminal defendants, the class action suit seeks a preliminary injunction ordering the Public Defender's Office to appear at arraignments.

The Public Defender's Office's policy is to withhold counsel for detainees until they are referred to the office as new clients, the lawsuit says. Without an attorney present at the initial arraignment where they are granted the referral, defendants can't enter a plea, apply for lower bail or exercise their speedy trial rights.

Martin says he was stunned by the county's practice when he became aware of it two years ago while representing a client through the county's private attorney conflicts panel.

The two named plaintiffs in the suit are Martin's clients through that panel: Jerome Wade and John Farrow. They were both jailed for 13 days before receiving an attorney for their respective cases in 2011. Wade, at the time, was 17 and being prosecuted as an adult in an armed robbery case; he pleaded no contest Dec. 6. Farrow was convicted on felony domestic violence charges two months after his arrest.

Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.