The Second Department, reversing Supreme Court, determined the judge in this custody proceeding should not have proceeded without a searching inquiry into whether father was making an intelligent waiver of his right to counsel:
At an appearance before the Family Court on the mother’s petition, the court advised the father of his right to counsel, and the father requested an adjournment to obtain an attorney. The court stated that it would email the father contact information for Legal Aid and scheduled a date for a virtual hearing on the petition. On the scheduled hearing date, the father appeared without counsel and the court did not inquire whether the father was waiving his right to counsel. The court commenced the hearing with the father proceeding pro se. By order … , the court, after the hearing, among other things, awarded the mother primary physical custody of the child, with parental access to the father. The father appeals.
The father, as a respondent in a proceeding pursuant to Family Court Act article 6, had the right to be represented by counsel … . “A party may waive that right and proceed without counsel provided he or she makes a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of the right to counsel” … . “[T]o determine whether a party has validly waived the right to counsel, a court must conduct a searching inquiry to ensure that the waiver has been made knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently” … .
Here, the Family Court failed to conduct a searching inquiry to ensure that the father’s waiver of his right to counsel was knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently made … . Matter of Mercado v Arzola, 2023 NY Slip Op 00321, Second Dept 1-25-23
Practice Point: Here father, the respondent in a custody proceeding, had a right to counsel. The judge should not have proceeded with the hearing without making a searching inquiry into whether father was knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily waiving his right to counsel.