The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision on May 4, 2016, L.B. & another vs. Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court Department & others, in which it ruled that indigent parents have a constitutional right to counsel in two circumstances: (1) termination/removal of a guardian; and (2) modification to “substantially chang[e]” the terms of visitation, provided that the parent presents a creditable claim for either circumstance.
This groundbreaking decision was due to the efforts of a team of attorneys from Mintz, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. and Community Legal Aid, the civil legal services program in central and western Massachusetts. The teams represented low-income mothers who were looking to regain custody of their children after guardianships had been entered by the court. The clients initially represented themselves before the trial court. The cases went to the Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled that indigent parents are entitled as a matter of due process to an attorney, and to be informed of that right, so long as they substantiate their claim.
“The right of a parent to care and custody of one’s own child is fundamental to our society and is constitutionally protected, as is the right to family integrity,” says Laura Gal, an Attorney in the Family Law Unit at Community Legal Aid who argued the case before the SJC. “The Court’s decision reflects the importance of the rights at stake.”
“This case will impact thousands of low-income families each year,” says Susan Finegan, Member of the firm’s Litigation Section and Chair of its Pro Bono Committee, who also argued on behalf of another parent. “We are grateful that the Court recognized this important right for low-income parents, who otherwise would have to represent themselves in a complicated process in which their parental rights could be jeopardized.”
The Mintz team, led by Ms. Finegan, included attorneys Geoffrey Friedman, Associate in the firm’s Litigation Section, and Sandra Badin, Associate in the firm’s Intellectual Property Section. Additional assistance was provided by Nichole Beiner, an Associate in the firm’s Litigation Section, and Summer Intern Emma Nitzberg.
The Community Legal Aid team, led by Laura Gal, included Christina Paradiso, Senior Supervising Attorney, Family Law Unit, and retired Probate and Family Court Judge Edward Ginsburg.