A Washington state mother lost primary residential custody of her children to her husband in their divorce.
He had an attorney. She didn’t – because she couldn’t afford one.
On appeal, the mother argued that the state should have provided her with a lawyer, just as it provides lawyers to indigent criminal defendants. Her rationale was that the state requires people to go through complex public court proceedings to obtain a divorce, and ordinary people cannot be expected to participate in them effectively without counsel.
The Washington Supreme Court affirmed, finding no obligation by the state to furnish counsel in a divorce. The court contrasted couples’ divorces with cases initiated by the state which threaten fundamental constitutional rights, such as termination of parental rights cases.
Interestingly, the Court noted that the legislature may wish to consider enacting enabling legislation for the state to make counsel available to divorcing indigents.
Both the dissenting opinion and the Washington state bar association echoed the mother’s sentiments.