Filing a Notice of Appeal in a Court-Appointed Juvenile Case
Opinion rules that a lawyer appointed to represent a parent at the trial of a juvenile case may file a notice of appeal to preserve the client's right to appeal although the lawyer does not believe that the appeal has merit.
Indigent parents who are parties in abuse, neglect, dependency, and termination of parent rights (TPR) juvenile proceedings are entitled to appointed counsel at both the trial court and the appellate levels. N.C. Gen .Stat. §§7B-602; 7B-1101; 7A-27; 7A-451.
Rule 3A of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure, N.C. R. App. P. 3A, applies to juvenile cases alleging abuse, neglect, or dependency or in which a TPR was sought. Rule 3A provides, in part,
…If the appellant is represented by counsel, both the trial counsel and appellant must sign the notice of appeal,…
The remaining provisions of the rule protect the privacy interests of the juvenile and provide for expedited procedures and calendaring priority.
An indigent parent has the right to appeal the trial court's decision. However, an appointed trial lawyer will, on occasion, decline to sign the notice of appeal, as required by N.C. R. App. P. 3A and as requested by the client, because the lawyer is concerned that the appeal lacks merit and the lawyer may be in violation of Rule 11(a) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure and Rule 3.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. N.C. R. Civ. P. 11(a) provides in part,
…The signature of an attorney or party constitutes a certificate by him that he has read the pleading, motion, or other paper; that to the best of his knowledge, information, and belief formed after reasonable inquiry it is well-grounded in fact and is warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law, and that it is not interposed for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation…
An appellate lawyer is appointed by the Office of the Appellate Defender to represent an indigent parent on the appeal. This lawyer reviews the record to determine whether there are justiciable issues. On many occasions, the appellate lawyer finds justiciable issues that the trial lawyer did not identify. However, on some occasions, the appellate lawyer determines that there are no meritorious legal arguments to be made. In juvenile cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that an Anders-type brief may not be filed. In re Harrison, 136 N.C. App. 831, 526 S.E. 2d 502 (2000). Therefore, the appellate lawyer will advise the client that the appeal is without merit and ask the client to withdraw the appeal. If the client refuses to do so, the lawyer files a motion to withdraw from the representation.
In appeals of juvenile cases, when the client has indicated that he or she wants to appeal and is prepared to sign the notice of appeal as required by N.C. R. App. P. 3A, is it unethical for the appointed trial lawyer to sign the notice of appeal to preserve the client's right to appeal even if the trial lawyer has doubts as to the merit of the appeal?
No, it is not unethical for the trial lawyer to sign the notice of appeal to preserve an indigent client's right to appeal in a juvenile case. Whether signing the notice violates Rule 11 of the Rules of Civil Procedure is outside the purview of the Ethics Committee. Nevertheless, the committee can opine on whether the lawyer is in violation of the prohibition in Rule 3.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct on bringing a proceeding or asserting an issue unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous. In TPR and other juvenile cases, the state's interest in ensuring due process for parents is demonstrated by the statutory requirement for court appointed-trial and appellate counsel for indigent parents. In light of this public policy, and when the notice of appeal serves to preserve the client's right to appeal but does not assert a particular legal argument, it is not unethical for the appointed trial lawyer for an indigent parent to sign a notice of appeal although the trial lawyer may not believe that the appeal has merit. Moreover, the trial lawyer may rely upon the court-appointed appellate lawyer's subsequent review of the record to determine whether to pursue the appeal.