NJ Appellate Division: No Right to Court-Appointed Counsel for DV Litigants

The New Jersey Appellate Division ruled yesterday that indigent domestic violence litigants (both plaintiffs seeking domestic violence restraining orders and defendants opposed same) are not entitled to legal representation at the expense of taxpayers.

The 3-judge panel indicated that the kinds of relief available to domestic violence victims “do not result in a ‘consequence of sufficient magnitude’ to warrant the mandatory appointment of counsel.”

Alleged violations of the “Prevention of Domestic Violence Act” do not expose defendants to incarceration. The provisions empowering courts to impose consequences that are “remedial in nature,” such as restraining contact with victims, modifying parenting time, and imposing civil fines.

The panel noted that the right to court-appointed counsel has been recognized in some types of civil cases, such as proceedings to classify sex offenders under Megan’s Law, and to terminate parental rights. But apparently, because the panel believes that the Act is designed to protect victims from future domestic violence, “it does not pit the power of the State against the defendant.” To read the decision in its entirety, see D.N. v. K.M. / K.M. v. D.N.

I find it difficult to reconcile this ruling. Violations of the “Prevention of Domestic Violence Act” can expose defendants to a host a serious consequences, such as a permanent ban on the right to bear arms, and a permanent ban from their residence. How is that not as serious as classifying sex offenders on Megan’s Law or terminating parental rights Quite frankly, I would have agreed with the decision more if it was based on a classification of restraining order hearings as “civil” or “family” matters, rather than criminal. But to minimize the impact of the Act, in my opinion, undermines it entirely.