NH Supreme Court requests amicus briefs on topic of right to counsel in abuse and neglect cases

Since July 2011, indigent parents accused of abuse or neglect have had to manage the court system without an attorney. Recent legislative changes removed the statutory requirement contained in RSA 169-C:10, II(a) that counsel be appointed for requiring appointed counsel for indigent parents. However, the question still remains whether the parents have a constitutional right to counsel under the New Hampshire constitution.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court is now faced with that question, and has called for amicus briefs or memorandum on the following question:

Does the Due Process Clause of the New Hampshire Constitution (Part 1, Articles 2 and 15) or the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution require the appointment of counsel for an indigent parent from whom the State seeks to take custody of a minor child based on allegations of neglect or abuse? 

I believe the civil right to counsel for parents accused of abuse or neglect is a fundamental right, as basic as the right to an attorney in criminal matters. My New Hampshire Bar News opinion and blog post provide a more detailed analysis. I am interested to hear your opinion so feel free to leave a comment. 

Concord, we have a problem!

Crazy things are going on in Concord that needs your attention. Currently, there are several bills that would dramatically change the practice of family law in New Hampshire, and not for the better. A group of disgruntled litigants are attempting for the third time to remove a distinguished marital master from the bench. Finally, Governor Lynch’s proposed budget eliminates the guardian ad litem fund and appointed counsel for parents in abuse and neglect cases, a proposal that would be disastrous for the overburdened court system and children they protect.  

Pending Legislation

 

The New Hampshire family court system is not perfect and I am sure that there is room for improvement. Unlike other areas of the law, which are black and white, the grey nature of family law requires the vesting of discretion within the court to allow a result based on the unique facts of each case. However, the legislature seems intent on radical change that removes discretion from the courts, and mandates certain outcomes.

  • HB 587 proposes that no fault divorces be granted only to couples who do not have children under the age of 18. Instead, divorcing couples with minor children must prove one of the fault grounds, such as adultery, extreme cruelty, endangerment of health or reason, habitual drunkenness, or abandonment. Though the aim may be to keep families together by requiring a person seeking a divorce to prove fault, the end result would be increased litigation, expense and animosity in cases involving children. Such a result is in no one’s best interests.
  • HB 538 would require the family division to report a vast amount of information to the state registrar about parental rights and responsibilities matters. The bill proposes that the court must report statistics on every temporary or permanent order on parental rights and responsibilities, including tallying whether mothers or fathers were awarded decision making and residential responsibility. The bill also requires the Supreme Court to implement standards of practice and oversight of GALs. This bill creates an extreme amount of work for an all ready underfunded court system, and duplicates oversight and discipline provided by the GAL Board. In today’s tough times, it’s the least important thing on the plate.
  •  HB 563 would discard the current child support calculations and set child support to either the net income multiplied by the applicable percentage or the foster care reimbursement rates, whichever is less. Where to start with what is wrong with this bill? It drastically reduces all child support rates by basing child support on net income instead of gross income and tying child support to the foster care reimbursement rates. For example, the most that any obligor would ever have to pay for a child age 0 to 5 would be $474. That amount does not even cover daycare for one child, let alone diapers, formula, clothing, food and shelter.

If you have comments or concerns about these bills, contact your legislature to make your voice heard. You can find the contact information for your representative or senator on the state website.  

 

Impeachment of Master Cross

 

For three years, family court litigants David Johnson and Michael Puia have waged a public war against Marital Master Philip Cross through the legislature. Despite the legislature's vote against the Bill of Address seeking to remove Master Cross from the bench, Rep Itse has sponsored a house resolution seeking to direct the the house judiciary committee "to investigate whether grounds exist to impeach marital master Phillip Cross and/or any justice of the New Hampshire superior court."

 

Such a maneuver is a dangerous, slippery slope for the legislature. In its 235 year history, the State of New Hampshire has impeached two judges. Impeachment is reserved for the most serious of offenses, defined by the Constitution as "bribery, corruption, malpractice or maladministration."  The nature of the allegations enumerated in the resolution cannot on its face be characterized as one of these four acts.

 

Instead, the allegations evidence unhappy litigants who do not understand the court system. Therein is the slippery slope. If every litigant who received an adverse decision were able to bring their grievance to the legislature and initiate impeachment proceedings, the State of New Hampshire would have no judges left. Master Cross alone heard over 6,000 cases last year. Add in the 90 plus judges and masters across the state, and the legislature would have their hands full.

 

The hearing before the Resolution Committee on this matter will occur at the Legislative Office Building, 30 North State Street, Concord, on Tuesday, the 22nd, @ 3:30pm.

 

State Budget

 

Governor Lynch has proposed a budget that eliminates both the GAL Fund and assigned counsel for parents accused of abuse and neglect. This proposed change would go into effect on July 1, 2011.

 

Currently, the GAL Fund works as follows: The court assigns a Guardian ad Litem to a case to represent the best interests of a child. These cases include divorce, parenting petitions, termination of parental rights, guardianships and other family matters. In the event that one or both of the litigants qualifies under certain income guidelines, the court orders that the qualifying parent’s portion of the payment owed to the GAL will go through the GAL fund. The parties are then required to contact the Office of Cost Containment and set up a payment schedule. Services rendered by GALs through the GAL fund are not free, and the parents must pay back the funds.

In abuse and neglect cases, the Division of Children, Youth and Families files a petition against a parent alleging that a child is abused or neglected. A possible consequence of an abuse or neglect petition can be the filing of a petition to terminate a parent’s parental rights. Parental rights are constitutional rights, similar to a defendant charged in a criminal case. Additionally, assigned counsel is subject to reimbursement from the parents. In other words, a parent does not get a free attorney, and may have to pay back some or all of the funds.

 

The results of the Governor’s proposed cuts would be disastrous. Eliminating the GAL fund would deny access to the court system to low income families. Judges would be unable to make informed decisions regarding custody of children without the services of a guardian ad litem, and children would be put in harm’s way. In abuse and neglect cases, a flood of litigants who are unfamiliar with the court system and the law will wash through and muddy an all ready overburdened court. Then, eventually, when a parent who has not been afforded counsel has their constitutional right to parent terminated will win an appeal on those grounds and children who need permanent homes will continue to live in limbo.

 

I get that the state is looking to eliminate entitlement programs, but these programs are not free and are about access to justice and the protection of constitutional rights. Instead of eliminating the programs, the state should implement a better system to insure that more parents are paying into the system as they have been court ordered to do.

 

Please write to Governor Lynch, and tell him how his proposed budget affects your family.

What is the difference between a CASA and a GAL?

I had a conversation today in which the person stated that most Guardian ad Litem's are volunteers, and that it is very unusual to have a GAL who is paid for his services. I thought this topic was worth a blog post to clear up this misconception that seems to derive from the common mix up between a CASA and a GAL.

As discussed previously on this blog, a GAL is a professional appointed by the court to perform an independent investigation and to make recommendations to the court regarding the best interests of a child. A GAL may be appointed in all types of family law cases, from divorces to guardianships, and is paid for her services. GALs are not volunteers, although most GALs work for drastically reduced rates and work far more hours on a case than are billed.

On the other hand, a Court Appointed Special Advocate or CASA is a trained volunteer who serves as an advocate for children in abuse or neglect cases. An abuse or neglect case is a type of case brought to the court by the Division of Children, Youth and Families under the Child Protection Act to protect the health, safety and welfare of a child. Although a CASA's role is very similar to that of a GAL, a CASA only works on abuse or neglect cases or derivative termination of parental rights.