Lassiter v. Department of Social Services – Case Brief Summary

Summary of Lassiter v. Department Of Social Services, 452 U.S. 18, 101 S. Ct. 2153, 68 L. Ed. 2d 640 (1981).


A North Carolina state court determined that Lassiter’s (P) infant son was neglected and transferred him to the Department of Social Services (D). Lassiter was later convicted of murder and the Department of Social Services petitioned to terminate her parental rights. Lassiter was brought from the prison to the hearing and the court determined that her failure to obtain counsel was without just cause and refused to postpone the hearing. The court did not appoint counsel for her and terminated her parental rights.

Lassiter’s sole contention on appeal was that, because she was indigent, the State was required to provide counsel for her under the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court of Appeals affirmed and the North Carolina Supreme Court denied review and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.


  • Does the Fourteenth Amendment require courts to appoint counsel for indigents in every parental status termination proceeding?

Holding and Rule (Stewart)

  • No. The Fourteenth Amendment does not require courts to appoint counsel for indigents in every parental status termination proceeding.

Under the “fundamental fairness” requirement of due process, there is a presumption that an indigent litigant has a right to appointed counsel only when, if he loses, he may be deprived of his physical liberty. The following Elridge factors must then be balanced against each other, and then weighed against the presumption: the private interest at stake, the government’s interest, and the risk that the procedures used will lead to erroneous decisions.

If, in a given case, the parent’s interests were at their strongest, the State’s interests were at their weakest, and the risks of error were great, the Eldridge factors would overcome the presumption against the right to appointed counsel, and due process would require appointment of counsel.

The court held that Lassiter’s rights to due process of law were not violated when the trial judge denied appointed counsel. The proceeding involved no allegations of neglect or abuse which could form the basis for criminal charges, no expert witnesses testified; there were no specially troublesome points of law, the presence of counsel could not have made a determinative difference for petitioner, she had expressly declined to appear at an earlier child custody hearing, and the trial court found that her failure to contest the termination proceeding was without cause.


Judgment affirmed.

Concurrence (Burger)

The purpose of the termination hearing was not punitive but was protective of the child’s best interests.

Dissent (Blackmun)

The unique importance of a parent’s interest in the care and custody of his or her child cannot be constitutionally extinguished through formal judicial proceedings without the benefit of counsel. Termination is both total and irrevocable. The risk of error in these types of proceedings is high and the nature of them is distinctly formal and adversarial with an obvious accusatory and punitive focus. When a parent is indigent, lacking an education, and easily intimidated by figures of authority, the imbalance may well be insuperable.

Dissent (Stevens)

The issue is one of fundamental fairness, not of weighing the pecuniary costs against the social benefits.

See Burnham v. Superior Court of California for a law school civil procedure case brief in which the Supreme Court held that personal service on the defendant in a divorce proceeding was sufficient to enable the court to exercise personal jurisdiction over him.

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