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Court of Appeals affirms children’s right to counsel

Judge's gavel with books

Michigan children in juvenile court must fully understand their right to an attorney.

They also need to fully comprehend what waiving that right would entail, and clearly choose to do so before a proceeding continues without representation.

Those are among the main takeaways of a new ruling from the state Court of Appeals.

University of Michigan law professor Kim Thomas said she appreciates the court for highlighting the need to protect children’s rights.

“I think that there are a lot of things individual judges can do to explain (to) young people the rights that they have and make sure those are implemented in every single case even when it’s hard to do and so I really hope that that’s something we can take away,” Thomas said.

The appellate court’s opinion also reaffirmed that a parent cannot turn down a child’s right to a lawyer for them.

It found a trial court wrongly let a brother and sister represent themselves in truancy proceedings.

Earlier court-appointed attorneys didn't work out after they reported not being able to have confidential communication with the siblings.

Thomas said there are several reasons why young people might not be able to adequately work with their lawyers.

“We need to think about ways to make sure the court is helping them, getting them the information they need, informing them of their rights and giving them the information they need to make decisions on their cases,” Thomas said.

The appellate court cited three requirements that must be met before any defendant can represent themselves.

Those include an “unequivocal” request, a determination that it was made knowingly and voluntarily, and that the move wouldn’t burden the court. In that discussion, the opinion noted the trial court’s duty to determine the best interests of the children.

“Given the pitfalls of self-representation even for adults, the circumstances under which self-representation will serve a child’s best interests are likely to be extremely rare,” the opinion read.

Two judges on the panel filed their own independent concurring opinions as well.