New Jersey Supreme Court Affirms Right to Self-Representation

In Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. R.L.M. and J.J., the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that parents have the right to represent themselves in actions to terminate parental rights.

Facts of Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. R.L.M. and J.J 

Plaintiff New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (Division) brought a guardianship action against R.L.M. and J.J., seeking to terminate their parental rights to their daughter R.A.J. At a case management conference early in the proceeding, J.J. told the court that he did not want an attorney appointed for him. As the conference continued, J.J.’s previously assigned counsel continued to speak on his behalf. At the second case management conference, J.J. left the courtroom before the conference began. At the third conference, J.J. stated that he wanted to retain substitute counsel. At the final case management conference and the pretrial conference, J.J.’s assigned counsel represented him; J.J. declined to appear.

On the first day of the trial, J.J. reasserted the right to represent himself. The trial court denied J.J.’s request. It found that J.J.’s “request at this late date would only serve to delay the proceedings and unduly interfere with the minor child’s attempt to gain permanency in this matter.” The trial judge further concluded that the best interests of R.A.J. necessitated the termination of the parental rights of R.L.M. and J.J.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s determination. As to J.J.’s self-representation claim, the panel held that any constitutional aspect of that claim must derive from principles of procedural due process and found that self-representation compounds the risk of error in family proceedings, thereby undermining the trial court’s effort to achieve a fair result.

The appeals court also addressed issues that J.J. did not raise, such as potential statutory and court-rule-based sources of a right to self-representation. The panel found no explicit right of self-representation in N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.4 and concluded that Rule 1:21-1(a)’s general grant of a right of self-representation to competent litigants in matters that directly affect them could be relaxed pursuant to Rule 1:1-2(a). J.J. appealed, arguing that he was entitled to a new trial by virtue of the trial court’s denial of his request to represent himself.

New Jersey Supreme Court’s Decision in Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. R.L.M. and J.J

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. While it found that the Appellate Division was correct in upholding the trial court’s decision to deny the self-representation request, it recognized that such a right can exist in actions to terminate parental rights.  “We hold that a parent has the right to represent himself or herself in an action to terminate his or her parental rights, with the assistance of standby counsel at the court’s discretion,” Justice Anne Patterson wrote for the court.

In reaching its decision, the court reaffirmed “New Jersey’s longstanding adherence to the principle that a competent litigant may represent himself or herself in a matter in which he or she is a party, subject to exceptions set forth in statutes, court rules, and case law.” In this case, it noted that the statute at issue, N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.4, does not mandate legal representation for any parent. “Although a parent’s decision to appear pro se in this complex and consequential litigation represents poor strategy in all but the rarest case, [the statute] plainly authorizes the parent to proceed unrepresented,” Patterson explained.

The court went on to emphasize that a parent’s right of self-representation is not absolute. “That right must be exercised in a manner that permits a full and fair adjudication of the dispute and a prompt and equitable permanency determination for the child. The parent must inform the court of his or her intention to appear pro se in a timely manner, so as to minimize delay of the proceedings,” Justice Patterson wrote. “He or she must invoke the right of self-representation clearly and unequivocally. In the event of such an invocation, the court should conduct an inquiry ‘to ensure the parent understands the nature of the proceeding as well as the problems she may face if she chooses to represent herself.’”

In this case, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that the trial court acted well within its discretion. “Although J.J. initially asserted his right to represent himself in a timely and clear manner, he immediately withdrew his request and sought the appointment of assigned counsel. He did not reassert his right to represent himself until the trial was in progress,” Justice Patterson wrote. “At that late stage, the trial court was no longer in a position to grant J.J.’s application without suspending the trial to the detriment of the child at the heart of this case.”

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