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PJC Argues Court Erred in Denying Mother Continuance to Find Counsel in Child Custody Case

On March 20, 2006, the Public Justice Center, along with Legal Aid Bureau and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Services, filed an amicus brief in the case of Tara M. Touzeau v. Scott E. Deffinbaugh, at the Court of Appeals for Maryland.
 
In this contested custody case, the mother could not afford to retain counsel to represent her.  The father was represented, and the presiding Master strongly recommended that the mother obtain legal representation. The mother consulted with the Legal Aid Bureau and with a private attorney at Miles & Stockbridge, who were willing to take her case if she could get a continuance of the trial to properly prepare.  The Circuit Court for Montgomery County denied the mother’s motion for a continuance, and compelled her to go forward without an attorney.  At the close of the two day trial, the circuit court ruled against her.
 
With the assistance of Miles & Stockbridge, the mother appealed, arguing that the court was wrong to deny her a continuance to get a lawyer. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgment of the circuit court.  The mother appealed to the Court of Appeals.
 
At the Court of Appeals, the PJC’s amicus brief argued that the lower court decision would deny meaningful access to justice for the thousands of Maryland litigants who involuntarily represent themselves because they cannot afford counsel.  Specifically, PJC’s amicus brief highlighted that (1) Maryland’s legal community and the Court of Appeals have invested much in promoting access to justice for the poor, (2) it remains extremely difficult for a poor litigant to obtain a lawyer in a contested custody case, and (3) it is an abuse of discretion to deny a continuance where a poor litigant has secured representation for a contested custody case.  The brief presented a wealth of data and the experience of amici Legal Aid and MVLS, attesting to the fact that the array of providers of legal services for the poor meet only 20% of their needs for legal assistance with civil legal problems.  Moreover, contested custody cases are universally regarded as the area of greatest unmet need and the most difficult to place with pro bono counsel.  The brief argued that courts must be cognizant of this context when ruling on motions for continuances to allow pro bono representation; otherwise, pro bono services to poor family law litigants will be further hampered. 
 
The amicus brief was authored by PJC Legal Director Debra Gardner and by Stephen Sachs of  Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr LLP.

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