Monday, December 2, 2013

Resented Representation

In re AB and AB, 2013 VT 66

The biggest mistake that pro sers make is assuming that the court hearing is the time to develop their case.  They sally forth and stumble through the hearing, figuring that if they can just keep going, they will get the right words out at some point.

In reality, court is the last place you want to explore or develop your case.  Court time is short and precious.  The judge or jury has short attention spans and little innate sympathy for your situation.    The sooner you can get the key evidence to them and the more effectively you can do this, the better your chances of success are. 

So in today’s case when mother, who was fighting a termination of her remaining parental rights, announced to the judge at the start of the hearing that she wanted to switch counsel or represent herself, the trial court was having no part of it.  For the trial court, the problem was that mother waited until the very last moment to express her dissatisfaction with counsel and sought to represent herself with no legal training and very little formal education.  Such a switch would have negated whatever case development mother and her counsel had and would have guaranteed a messy, incomplete hearing. 

On appeal, the SCOV affirms the trial court’s denial of mother’s motion to discharge counsel.  Mother waited too long and in the realm of a termination hearing, the primary issue is not the parent’s rights but the timely adjudication of parental rights in light of the child’s best interests.  In other words, parents have their rights, but such rights ultimately take a backseat to the interest of the children.

Needless to say, mother who had a whole raft of problems, including drugs and an on-going abusive relationship with the children’s father, did not prevail at her hearing, and the trial court terminated parental rights. 

For mother, this is likely a confusing outcome.  Not only did she lose her children, but she was denied the right to fire her attorney and represent herself.  From her perspective, the case must look like she was shoved onto a railroad car that immediately left the station. 

But that is the nature of hearings.  The court will not suffer parties who wait to develop their issues or who suffer last minute changes of heart.  Court time is show time, and pity the party who mistakes it for dress rehearsal.

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