Lassiter v. Dep't of Social Services

452 U.S. 18



A right to appointed counsel is recognized to exist only where the litigant may lose his physical liberty if he loses the litigation.


The state court granted respondent department's motion to terminate petitioner mother's parental rights. The mother was not represented by counsel. On the mother's appeal, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina decided that appointment of counsel for indigent parents was not constitutionally required in proceedings to terminate parental rights. On writ of certiorari, the mother appealed. The mother's infant son was adjudicated a neglected child and placed in the custody of the department of social services. Subsequently, the mother was incarcerated for a murder conviction. Although the mother had an attorney to represent her in the criminal appeal, she did not inform her lawyer about the termination of parental rights proceeding. At that proceeding, the mother represented herself. On appeal, the mother contended that due process required the State to appoint counsel for her because she was indigent.


Does due process require the state to appoint counsel for a mother in a parental rights termination action because she was indigent?




The Court observed that there was a presumption against the right to appointed counsel when no potential deprivation of physical liberty existed. In analyzing the Mathews v. Eldridge factors, the Court found that the parents' interests could overcome the presumption against the right to appointed counsel in appropriate cases. The Court concluded that the decision of whether due process required the appointment of counsel for indigent parents in termination of parental proceedings was left to the trial court in the first instance. In the instant case, the Court held that the state trial court committed no error by failing to appoint counsel for the mother.

The Court affirmed the decision that due process did not require the state to appoint counsel to represent the mother in the proceeding to terminate her parental rights with respect to her infant son.

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