Tuesday, February 10, 2015
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that a parent in a private guardianship proceeding is entitled to counsel as a matter of due process. (The court previously ruled that a parent in a private adoption proceeding enjoyed that same right.) The case provides a categorical right to counsel under Massachusetts law, and thus stands in contrast to the case-by-case approach to a parent's federal due process right to counsel in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services.
The case, Guardianship of V.V., involved a guardianship proceeding between a minor's mother and great-grandmother. The mother was not initially represented by counsel when the lower courts awarded guardianship to the great-grandmother, although the mother obtained a lawyer later in the proceedings.
By the time the Supreme Judicial Court had a chance to rule, the case had become moot. That's because the minor was back with the mother. (The court said that the case was not moot on account of the mother obtaining a lawyer later in the proceeding. The court said the point was that the mother didn't have an attorney at the initial guardianship proceeding.) Still, the court said that the issue was capable of repetition but evading review--that it was an issue sure to come up again, and, because of the quick turn-around in guardianship cases, likely to evade appellate review.
The court held that the weighty interests and due process considerations in guardianship proceedings meant that parties to a guardianship proceeding had a categorical right to counsel. The court also noted that the state, by statute, provided counsel to parties to a guardianship proceeding where the state is a party, and that the same interests are at stake in a private guardianship proceeding.