Father Not Denied Right to Counsel in Pro-Se Termination Proceedings

In an appellate decision, the court found that the petitioner was not deprived of his right to counsel during termination proceedings because he intelligently and voluntarily waived this right. The respondent father and his child’s mother had a tumultuous relationship that included a history of domestic violence. While pregnant, the mother had practically no prenatal care and abused drugs and alcohol.

She went into premature labor in April 2008, and several days after giving birth to their child, the petitioner, the commissioner of children and families (commissioner), removed the child under an order of temporary custody. In August 2009, the minor child was declared neglected, and the commissioner submitted a petition to terminate parental rights, citing failure to rehabilitate, abandonment, and the non-existence of an ongoing child-parent relationship between the father and child.

The Preliminary Hearing

At the preliminary hearing held in April 2010, the court-appointed attorney requested to withdraw from the case due to a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship. The court advised the father that it was in his best interest to have an attorney, but the father clearly stated he did not want counsel appointed for him. He filed a pro se appearance, though stated he might hire outside counsel. At a hearing ten days later, the father again declined the court’s offer to appoint counsel, though he was given standby counsel during a June 2010 hearing. The father did not make it clear whether he wanted this attorney to handle the case, instead asserting he would remain a self-represented party.

At a September 2010 hearing, the father offered a conditional possibility that he might ask the standby attorney to represent him, but never revoked his right to self-representation. At the first day of trial, the father stated he could not handle the matter by himself and asked for a two- or three-month continuance so the standby attorney could prepare his case. The court denied this request, and upon completion of the trial, the court granted the commissioner’s motion to terminate parental rights.

Right to Counsel in Court

In the State of Connecticut, courts must advise parties of their right to counsel when they first appear without counsel during termination proceedings. Upon request, the court will appoint counsel if the party cannot afford one, but a party cannot waive this right unless the court first explains “the nature and meaning of a petition for the termination of parental rights.” In other words, the party must fully understand the ramifications of self-representation, and must affirmatively and expressly relinquish the right to counsel.

The court record must show that the party was “literate, competent, and understanding, and that he… voluntarily exercis[ed] his informed free will.” Once a right is waived, it cannot be regained by revoking the waiver. The right to counsel cannot be abused as a way of interfering with the fair administration of justice, including causing unwarranted delays.

The Court’s Decision

In this case, the Appellate Court determined that the father was not denied his right to counsel, since he intelligently and voluntarily waived this right. It pointed to the repeated attempts by the lower court to appoint counsel and the father’s continuous refusals. At the preliminary hearing, the court properly advised the father of his rights and asked whether he understood them, to which he responded in the affirmative.

In addition, the court determined that there was no abuse of discretion when the trial court denied the father’s request for a continuance, noting significant delays that had already taken place, which have a significant impact in child-related matters. Therefore, the court affirmed the judgment.


Whether advancing or defending a post-judgment motion regarding parental rights, a parent is best served by consulting with an experienced family law practitioner. Should you have questions regarding matrimonial matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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