If you watch a lot of TV crime dramas, you may already be familiar with a criminal defendant’s right to an attorney, and, of course, the person’s right to be told that he or she is entitled to an attorney. In fact, the right to seek legal counsel is important in a wide variety of litigation contexts, including divorce and other related proceedings. In In re Marriage of Metzger, California’s Fourth District Court of Appeals explains that the right to counsel may also extend to a child who is the subject of a custody dispute among parents.
Husband and Wife were married in November 2003 and had a daughter, M, one year later. Wife filed a petition to dissolve the marriage in June 2009. Following a number of delays, extensions, and squabbles over depositions, and autism screenings for M, the trial court granted the dissolution and scheduled a separate trial on the issue of child custody in 2012.
Over Husband’s opposition, the lower court later issued an order appointing a lawyer to represent M in the proceedings and obligating Husband to advance $100,000 for the attorney’s retainer, an amount the trial judge said should ultimately be reimbursed from the spouses’ community property. The trial court said the move was justified by Wife’s concerns about whether the child might be autistic. Husband had previously dismissed the concerns as delay tactics, while Wife argued that M showed some signs of developmental delay. The trial judge said M was caught in the middle of the debate and “needs someone to speak for her.”