Delaware Public Media

Bill seeks to assure children have access to lawyer

May 15, 2016

State legislators are trying to ensure all children in Delaware involved in the criminal justice system have a lawyer assigned to their case.

That’s currently the policy for the state Public Defender’s Office, but it’s not outlined anywhere in Delaware law.

“The bottom line is, if we make this a law, parents can still take and buy their own attorney, or provide their own attorney. The ones that can’t or won’t are still going to be covered with legal council,” said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach), a chief sponsor of the bill.

During fiscal year 2015, there were potentially 1,500 kids without a lawyer to represent them in Family Court, though some certainly had a private attorney. Delaware is one of a few states that allow children to waive their right to a lawyer, though this bill wouldn’t prevent that either.

Schwartzkopf says it’s not fair to base the child’s need for a lawyer on their parents’ means.

“You can’t not represent a child just because their parents say, ‘I’m not paying for an attorney.’ Believe it or not, there are some parents that don’t have anything to do with their children and it’s sad," said Schwartzkopf.

In the past, the Public Defender’s Office did means test underage clients, though that hasn’t been the case for several years, according to officials.

The measure is waiting for its first committee hearing in the House.