Washington state children have no universal right to counsel

The Washington Supreme Court issued a ruling last week that upholds family court judges’ discretion in appointing attorneys to children who might be removed from their families in child custody proceedings.

It is important for the public to understand that this ruling does not apply to families who are in routine divorce and custody proceedings, and are working out a parenting plan. This ruling, rather, applies to cases in which foster children may be removed from their parents entirely.

While the court agreed that the right to an attorney is a question of due process, the justices were unanimous in their conclusion that the right to a lawyer is not absolute for children.

The justices maintained that the best interests of the child are served when each case is taken on its own. Family court judges currently have wide discretion regarding child custody and visitation.

The stakes for children facing removal from their families are high. As foster children, they are wards of the state and frequently are forced to move from one living arrangement to another. Although courts appoint guardians to act in the interest of children, these guardians are not acting as attorneys and are not often qualified to protect the legal rights of children in custody proceedings.

Advocates for children’s rights filed many briefs arguing that children in custody proceedings should have an absolute right to an attorney. Many arguments from the briefs appeared in the court’s decision, including an acknowledgement that children’s relationships with parents, siblings and extended family are at stake.

The ruling does state that attorneys will be denied to children only in rare cases.

Source: The Seattle Times, “Court: Children’s right to attorney not universal,” Shannon Dininny, March 1, 2012