PA Supreme Court: children have right to counsel in termination proceedings

Key_development Question_mark

03/28/2017, Litigation, Termination of Parental Rights (State) - Children

In In re L.B.M., the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania clearly established the right to counsel for children in termination of parental rights cases.


First and foremost, the main opinion rejected the position of the trial court that a child’s statutory right to “counsel” is satisfied simply where the best interests GAL happens to be a lawyer.  The Court held that the word “counsel”, when viewed in context, means the right not just to have a representative who is a lawyer, but to have such lawyer advocate for the child’s wishes (i.e., “legal counsel”).


Second, the court fractured as to whether the lawyer-GAL from the dependency proceeding can be re-appointed to represent the child’s legal interests in the termination proceeding.  In PA termination proceedings, appointment of counsel for the child is mandatory, but appointment of a GAL is discretionary, so a dependency attorney-GAL could be re-appointed for the termination proceeding just as legal counsel or to serve in a dual role as best interests/legal counsel.  The main opinion written by three of the justices (Wecht, Donohue, and Dougherty) held that re-appointing the attorney-GAL to serve as legal counsel would be confusing to the child in terms of the role change, plus if the dependency proceedings were still ongoing in any way, the lawyer-GAL appointed as just legal counsel might still be called upon at some point to serve the best interests role. The majority also rejected the dissent’s argument that a re-appointed lawyer-GAL could request legal counsel for the child if a conflict of interest arose, since "This essentially would make the GAL the arbiter of the child’s right to counsel. The right belongs to the child. That child generally is not in a position to assert, much less to advocate, the presence of a conflict of interest.”  

Two of the justices (Saylor and Todd) concurred and said that if the trial court seeks to re-appoint the attorney-GAL, the trial court should determine whether there is a conflict of interest between the child’s best interests and legal interests.  Since in the instant case there had been no one even ostensibly serving the legal counsel role (the trial court seeing such a role as unnecessary), the concurrence agreed there had been reversible error requiring a remand.  Two justices (Baer and Mundy) each wrote their own dissents that relied on the fact that dual role attorneys are permitted by the PA Juvenile Code and court rules for juvenile court proceedings (a fact we pointed out further strengthened our argument, since the Adoption Code has no such explicit authorization).  In their view, if the reappointed attorney-GAL saw a conflict, the attorney-GAL would raise it, satisfying any concern.  And they did not see a conflict in this case between the best and legal interests of the child.


Finally, the main opinon held that the failure to appoint counsel is structural error requiring reversal without an examination of whether the error was harmless.  This was one of the NCCRC’s primary contribution to the case, as this issue was not briefed by the petitioner’s counsel and so only existed in our portion of the amicus brief the NCCRC co-wrote with the Juvenile Law Center, ACLU of PA, Community Legal Services, Nat’l Association of Counsel for Children, and PA Legal Aid Network (collectively called the “Juvenile Law Center brief” by the Court).  Importantly, the Court held that the fact that the child's right to counsel is statutory as opposed to constitutional does not change the conclusion.  The Court stated:


In criminal and TPR cases alike, critical rights are at stake. With respect to the former, the framers of our Constitutions, and the courts interpreting those charters, have determined that counsel was required to ensure that liberty interests and process rights are protected. With respect to the latter, our General Assembly has decided that counsel for the child is required because of the primacy of children’s welfare, the fundamental nature of the parent-child relationship and the permanency of termination.  The legislature has codified a process that affords a full and fair opportunity for all of the affected parties to be heard and to participate in a TPR proceeding. The denial of mandated counsel compromises the framework of the proceedings and constitutes a structural error.  Further, as suggested by the Juvenile Law Center, harmless error analysis would require speculation after the fact to evaluate the effect of the lack of appointed counsel, effectively requiring proof of a negative.


This ruling on structural error is arguably applicable to any other area where a person has a statutory right to appointed counsel.  

NCCRC Coordinator John Pollock contributed to a piece in the Legal Intelligencer (subscription req'd) describing the important rulings in the case

Appointment of Counsel: categorical Qualified: no


Nccrc_involvement_icon The NCCRC worked with the petitioner and collaborated on an amicus brief.