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Mother entitled to appointed counsel before parental rights can be terminated

Holding that the respondent-mother "enjoyed constitutional and statutory rights to appointed counsel when the L-GAL sought termination of her parental rights" in a prior appeal, the court vacated the order terminating her rights and remanded for a new best interests hearing because the record showed that she lacked appellate counsel in the prior appeal. A trial court referee declined to terminate respondent's parental rights to the child at issue, finding that it would not serve the child's best interests. The trial court affirmed the referee. The child's L-GAL appealed, arguing that the trial court clearly erred. A different panel of the court reversed the trial court, finding the best interests ruling clearly erroneous, and remanded for entry of an order terminating respondent's parental rights. She now appealed that termination order. The court concluded that "when an indigent parent's right to the care and custody of his or her child are at stake, constitutional principles weigh in favor of appointing counsel." It grounded its decision to set aside the termination order "on the legislative mandate that counsel assist an indigent parent 'at each stage of the proceeding.' Although neither this Court nor the Supreme Court has defined the term 'proceeding' as used in MCL 712A.17c(4)(a), the term indisputably encompasses a best-interest hearing conducted pursuant to MCL 712A.19b(5). It logically follows that an L-GAL's interlocutory challenge to a referee's best-interest finding qualifies as a 'stage in the proceeding' when the relief sought is the termination of parental rights." The trial court "was obliged to inform respondent of her right to appellate counsel when the L-GAL claimed an appeal." The fact that the L-GAL sought appellate termination of her parental rights "heightened the statutory and constitutional imperatives for appointed counsel." The court concluded that the "law of the case doctrine, designed to protect efficiency and finality, cannot trump the right of a parent to the assistance of appellate counsel. To hold otherwise would render illusory the statutory and constitutional requirements that counsel be afforded at all stages of parental rights termination proceedings, erecting an unnecessary barrier to rectifying a flawed appeal." On remand, the trial court "may consider all information gathered during the proceedings, and may supplement the record with current facts."

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