Lassiter v. Department of Social Services (1981)

The Constitution does not require the appointment of counsel for indigent parents in every parental status termination proceeding. The decision whether due process calls for the appointment of counsel is to be answered in the first instance by the trial court, subject to appellate review.

Citation: 452 U.S. 18 (1981)
Date decided: Jun 1, 1981
Longer case name: Lassiter v. Department of Social Services of Durham County, North Carolina
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: North Carolina
Topic(s):Due process and Parental rights
Lists:Important cases
Attorneys:Leowen Evans (North Central Legal Assistance Program, Durham, NC) argued the cause pro hac vice for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Gregory C. Maihoit and Robert L. Walker.
Others involved:Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Louise Gruner Gans, Catherine P. Mitchell, and Phyllis Gelman for the National Center on Women and Family Law, Inc., et al.; by David R. Lundberg for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association; and by Robert S. Payne for the North Carolina Civil Liberties Union. Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., filed a brief for the American Bar Association as amicus curiae.
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Case Importance

While a loss, the decision created a test that became widely used, many places effectively. See also:, “The decision in this case helped establish that the Court did not have to appoint counsel for an indigent parent as long as no criminal charges were involved.”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)



In 1975, a North Carolina state court adjudicated petitioner’s infant son to be a neglected child and transferred him to the custody of respondent Durham County Department of Social Services. A year later, petitioner was convicted of second-degree murder, and she began a sentence of 25 to 40 years of imprisonment. In 1978, respondent petitioned the court to terminate petitioner’s parental rights. Petitioner was brought from prison to the hearing on the petition, and the court, after determining, sua sponte, that she had been given ample opportunity to obtain counsel and that her failure to do so was without just cause, did not postpone the proceedings. Petitioner did not aver that she was indigent, and the court did not appoint counsel for her. At the hearing, petitioner cross-examined a social worker from respondent, and both petitioner and her mother testified under the court’s questioning. The court thereafter terminated petitioner’s parental status, finding that she had not contacted respondent about her child since December, 1975, and that she had “willfully failed to maintain concern or responsibility for the welfare of the minor.” The North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected petitioner’s sole contention on appeal that, because she was indigent, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required the State to provide counsel for her. The North Carolina Supreme Court summarily denied discretionary review.


1. The Constitution does not require the appointment of counsel for indigent parents in every parental status termination proceeding. The decision whether due process calls for the appointment of counsel is to be answered in the first instance by the trial court, subject to appellate review. Pp. 23-24.

(a) With regard to what the “fundamental fairness” requirement of the Due Process Clause means concerning the right to appointed counsel, there is a presumption that an indigent litigant has a right to appointed counsel only when, if he loses, he may be deprived of his physical liberty. The other elements of the due process decision — the private interest at stake, the government’s interest, and the risk that the procedures used will lead to erroneous decisions, Mathews v.[p19]Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335 — must be balanced against each other and then weighed against the presumption. Pp. 25-27.

(b) The parent’s interest in the accuracy and justice of the decision to terminate parental status is an extremely important one (and may be supplemented by the dangers of criminal liability inherent in some termination proceedings); the State shares with the parent an interest in a correct decision, has a relatively weak pecuniary interest in avoiding the expense of appointed counsel and the cost of the lengthened proceedings his presence may cause, and, in some but not all cases, has a possibly stronger interest in informal procedures; and the complexity of the proceeding and the incapacity of the uncounseled parent could be, but would not always be, great enough to make the risk of an erroneous deprivation of the parent’s rights insupportably high. Thus if, in a given case, the parent’s interests were at their strongest, the State’s interests were at their weakest, and the risks of error were at their peak, the Eldridge factors would overcome the presumption against the right to appointed counsel, and due process would require appointment of counsel. Pp. 27-32.

2. In the circumstances of this case, the trial judge did not deny petitioner due process of law when he did not appoint counsel for her. The record shows, inter alia, that the petition to terminate petitioner’s parental rights contained no allegations of neglect or abuse upon which criminal charges could be based; no expert witnesses testified; the case presented no specially troublesome points of law; the presence of counsel could not have made a determinative difference for petitioner; she had expressly declined to appear at the 1975 child custody hearing; and the trial court found that her failure to make an effort to contest the termination proceeding was without cause. Pp. 32-33.

43 N.C.App. 525, 259 S.E.2d 336, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL,, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 34. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 35. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 59

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:51
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
Case internal status notes: Brodie & Pastore listed as Lassiter v. North Carolina.