NY court: wards have constitutional right to counsel in Art. 17-A guardianship proceedings

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10/03/2016, Litigation, Guardianship/Conservatorship of Adults - Protected Person

In Matter of Leon, 43 N.Y.S.3d 769 (N.Y. Surr. Ct. 2016), the court held that an indigent proposed ward in a guardianship proceeding under Article 17-A of the Surrogate's Court Procedure Act (which applies only to persons with a diagnosis of a developmental or intellectual disability) is constitutionally entitled to appointed counsel.   The court noted that NY CLS SCPA § 407(b) gives the Surrogate Court the authority to appoint counsel in any case where the judge "determines that such assignment of counsel is mandated by the constitution of this state or of the United States”, and the court held that this case fit that description.  

The court observed that "Gideon's due process mandate has been extended to civil proceedings and quasi-criminal proceedings when fundamental interests no less important than freedom from incarceration are threatened”, and it noted past NY cases finding a right to counsel for cases involving termination of parental rights, transfers of mental health patients, parole revocation proceedings, and others.  The court also pointed to the recent efforts around Intro 214-a, which would provide a right to counsel in NYC housing cases, and noted former Chief Judge Lippman’s support for a civil right to counsel as well as the NY Legislature’s endorsement of the civil right to counsel principle.  

The court held:

Given that the right to assigned counsel is recognized in a myriad of quasi-criminal and civil proceedings, ranging from military eviction and child custody, to involuntary commitment and employment litigation, there is no question that in Article 17-A proceedings, where a person's decision-making authority in every aspect of life is at stake, constitutional protections are warranted. The resulting deprivation of fundamental liberty interests inherent in the appointment of an Article 17-A guardian constitutes 'a loss of liberty as significant as those which previously have triggered the appointment of counsel’ … The fundamental liberty interests of an individual to self-determination, privacy, and autonomy are certainly equal to, if not greater than, the private interests implicated in proceedings involving the rights of parents in neglect proceedings or of tenants in housing court. Article 17-A guardianship infringes on a person's fundamental right to privacy, a fundamental right to refuse unwanted medical treatment, and a fundamental right to make personal decisions regarding marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationship, child rearing, and education. 

The court also held that appointment of a GAL would not satisfy the due process need for a “vigorous advocate on the respondent’s behalf."

Appointment of Counsel: categorical Qualified: yes