A Win for Access to Justice: Supreme Judicial Court Adopts Ruling Urged by BBA

It’s always a great feeling when the BBA weighs in on an issue and the Court is in agreement, but it’s especially gratifying when the issue at hand will have an immediate and beneficial impact on improving access to justice.

In a decision with potentially far-reaching implications for disputes involving the guardianship of minor children, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled this week that indigent parents are entitled to a court-appointed attorney whenever their children may be taken from them.

This position was urged on the Court by an amicus brief to which the Boston Bar Association signed on.  As noted by Justice Francis X. Spina on behalf of a unanimous Court, “[T]here is every reason, given the fundamental rights that are at stake, why an indigent parent is entitled to the benefit of counsel when someone other than the parent … seeks to displace the parent and assume the primary rights and responsibilities for the child.”

The Court took the position, as the amicus brief argued, that this right to counsel — which already applied in adoption cases and when the state seeks to remove a child from a parental home — ought to be extended to privately-contested guardianship matters as well.  In the case before the Court, a mother was not represented by an attorney when her grandmother, who had her own attorney, won guardianship of her child.

The BBA agreed to join the brief in support of a right to counsel in large part because of its longstanding commitment to the principle of access to justice for all.  The amicus brief directly cites three BBA task force and working group reports, including most recently Investing in Justice, the report of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.

The BBA’s Amicus Committee is chaired by Mark C. Fleming of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP.  The BBA’s policy for filing amicus briefs and procedures for submitting amicus brief requests are available here.