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Representing Children, “The Attorney For The Child”

New York Governor David A. Patterson has recently signed a law that modified the statutory language regarding attorneys who represent children in the Family Court of the State of New York . We wrote about an attorney’s obligations to a child clint HERE. Attorneys representing children in New York Family Courts have the title “attorney for the child”. The former terminology referred to attorneys who represented children as “Law Guardians”.

The change is much greater than just a change in terminology. It is a change in philosophy. The terminology “attorney for the child” makes it clear that the court is dealing with a lawyer advocate for the child’s position. The proper role for the attorney for the child is to advocate what the child wants in delinquency proceedings, child custody proceedings, visitation proceedings, foster care proceedings and other proceedings brought before the Family Court in the State of New York.

The initial change in the statutory language from Law Guardian to an attorney for the child started in October 2007 when Chief Judge Judith Kay sighted section 7.2 of the Rules of the Chief Judge in which she adopted advocacy standards for attorneys who represented children recommended by the Milla Commission.

“In ascertaining the child’s position, the attorney for the child must consult with and advise the child to the extent of and in manner consistent with child’s capabilities and have a through understanding of the child’s circumstances” section 7.2 states.

” If the child is capable of knowing, voluntary and considered judgement, the attorney for the child should be directed by the wishes of the child, even if the attorney for the child believes that what the child wants is not in the child’s best interest”.

This rule requires an attorney to explain the options available to his or her child client. The attorney can make recommendations to the child which the attorney feels would be in child’s best interest. The attorney can only deviate from the child’s wishes if there is a “substantial risk of eminent, serious harm to the child” if the child wishes are granted.

The purpose of the change in language is to eliminate any confusion over what role the attorney for the child fills. Attorney’s for children now must vigorously and diligently advocate the child’s position. They must not present their opinion if they disagree with the child’s position. This law is designed to see that children’s wishes are clearly, concisely and diligently presented to court. Query: will this make custody litigation a popularity contest? Will the child pick the parent who gives in to the child’s wishes instead of guiding the child in what is in the child’s best interest?

Law Offices of Schlissel DeCorpo have been representing both mothers and fathers in child custody, visitation proceedings, child support matters, and other types of litigation before the family courts for more than 30 years. Call us at 1-800-344-6431 or email us for a free consultation.

Picture courtesy of warrickcasa.us.

How NY’s New Ethics Rules Affect Lawyers With Children as Clients

boy_in_court_picAndrew Schepard and Theo Liebmann, in the March 11th edition of the New York Law Journal, listed three important changes in New York’s new Rules of Professional Conduct as they apply to lawyers representing children in Family Court. (I explored how the new rules would affect conflicts of interest here.)

Schepard and Liebmann’s main focus was on lawyers representing children and how the new rules would clarify an attorney’s guidelines with regard to when they may take a different position from that of their child client. They pointed out the current rule, as layed out by the Chief Judge in Administrative Order § 7.2, is substantially similar to the new Rule 1.14(b). The new rule states that “[w]hen the lawyer reasonably believes that the client (a) has diminished capacity, (b) is at risk of substantial physical, financial or other harm unless action is taken and (c) cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest, (then) the lawyer may take reasonably necessary protective action…” (emphasis and parentheses added) This “reasonably necessary protective action” includes substituting the law guardian’s judgment for the child’s judgment when those three requirements are met.

These rules set a high bar that a Law Guardian must meet before she may supplant her judgment for her child-client’s judgment. Schepard and Liebmann give the example of 10 year old Amkia P. (684 N.Y.S.2d 761 (Fam. Ct NY 1999)) who required medication for a life-threatening condition. She was in temporary Foster Care, but desired to return to live with her mother, who the Family Court believed would be not be capable of properly caring for her. Despite Amkia’s protestations, her Law Guardian advocated that she remain in temporary foster care.

Under the new rule, the Law Guardian in that case probably would have been allowed to substitute her judgmenet for the judgment of the client under those facts because Amkia appeared to be of diminished capacity (as a 10 year old), “at risk of substantial physical… harm,” and unable to take care of her own interests (again, she was only 10).

As Schepard and Liebmann point out, a Law Guardian in such a situation should think twice and three times before supplanting a client’s judgment with her own because a court will find that she should have advocated for home care to ensure that Amkia received the medicine she needed.

The new rules offer more guidance than attorneys may have had before, but they do not make these difficult judgment calls much easier.

Picture courtesy of George I. Kita.

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