Lawsuit challenges L.A.’s procedures for court-appointed attorneys

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A class action complaint calls for an investigation of limited conservatorship proceedings policies and practices

The Spectrum Institute’s Disability and Guardianship Project filed a class-action complaint [PDF] with the Department of Justice on June 26, accusing the Los Angeles Superior Court of discriminating against people with disabilities by denying them effective assistance of counsel.

“The limited conservatorship system is in complete disarray,” attorney Thomas F. Coleman, executive director of the Disability and Guardianship Project, said in a news release [PDF]. “Our research shows that the rights of conservatees are being systematically violated.”

“The primary problem is the failure of court-appointed attorneys to advocate for their clients and defend their rights – with the court being responsible for this failure due to a lack of quality assurance controls over attorney qualifications, training and performance.”

In California, people unable to represent themselves in legal proceeding are provided limited conservatorships, known as guardianships in most other jurisdictions, in matters affecting everything from the individuals’ residence to his education, contracts and medical decision-making.

The Spectrum Institute asserts that the Los Angeles Superior Court, which appoints these attorneys in Los Angeles County, has not equipped court-appointed attorneys with the tools to ensure they can effectively represent clients.

In addition, it argues that these attorney are limited in how they can represent their clients because the Court’s rules imposes a conflict of interest unique to court-appointed attorneys in civil matters, that doesn’t exist in other criminal proceedings. While all attorneys have an duty to represent their clients, the Court’s rules also mandate that these attorneys have a duty to assist the court with resolves the matters at issue, even though finding a resolution may not necessarily be in the client’s best interests.

Also on June 26, the Spectrum Institute filed a complaint with the DOJ on behalf of Gregory Demers [PDF], an individual under a limited conservatorship whose rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion were allegedly violated.

Last year, the organization filed a complaint [PDF] with the DOJ, contesting that the County systematically violates the voting rights of people under limited conservatorships, The DOJ confirmed in May that it has begun an investigation.