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Lassiter v. Department of Social Services

Citation. 452 U.S. 18 (1981)
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Brief Fact Summary.

A mother is stripped of her parental rights and is not given the right to counsel in the proceeding.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Indigent persons do not have the right to counsel in parental rights cases.


A Court finds that Defendant Lassiter neglected the medical needs of her son and places her son in the care of the Durham County Department of Social Services. A few years later Lassiter is convicted of murder and sent to jail. The department then moved to terminate Lassiter’s parental rights. Lassiter was brought to the hearing but did not have counsel. The Court continued with the hearing, finding that Lassiter failed to obtain counsel without cause. Lassiter did not claim that she was indigent and the Court did not give her counsel.


Do impoverished defendants have the right to counsel under the Fourteenth Amendment?


No. The Fourteenth Amendment does not guarantee indigent persons the right to counsel in parental rights proceedings. Decision of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.


Justice Justice Blackmun with Justices Brennan, and Marshall Dissenting

Does not believe a parent’s interest in the care and custody of their child can be constitutionally terminated through formal judicial proceedings without the benefit of counsel.


  1. Indigent persons only have a right to counsel in a criminal proceeding when their liberty is at stake.
  2. Courts use 3 factors when evaluating whether an indigent person should nevertheless have the right to counsel even if their liberty is not at stake:
  3. Private rights at stake
  4. Government’s interest
  5. Risk that the procedures used will lead to erroneous results
  6. A parent’s rights are weighed against the government’s interest in protecting the kid.
  7. Appointed counsel would not have changed the outcome of Lassiter’s case because it was clear that Lassiter could not care for her son.
  8. Lassiter was not entitled to counsel because her liberty in the initial proceeding was not at stake.

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