Court Rules Against Right To Self-Represent In Involuntary Mental Health Treatment Cases

Feb 10, 2017

Vermont's Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that Vermonters in proceedings related to involuntary hospitalization or medication do not have the right to represent themselves in court.

The case was brought by a man identified as G.G., who was fighting a court ruling that allowed the state to medicate him against his will. G.G. wanted to fight the case himself, but the lower court said that wasn't allowed — G.G. had to have a lawyer representing him.

Jack McCullough is an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, and he directs the Mental Health Law project based in Montpelier.

He says that happens in a few of the project's 100-to-200 court cases every year: There’s “some reason that the client decides they don’t want to be represented by Vermont Legal Aid, so they tell us they want to represent themselves.”

Up until now, courts evaluated these requests on a case-by-case basis, but people had to prove that they understood the proceeding and knew the consequences of their decision.

The Supreme Court ruled that because there are necessarily doubts about a person's mental fitness in these cases, people fighting involuntary medication don't have a right to represent themselves because that could raise doubts about the fairness of the proceeding.

“As is true of a mentally ill criminal defendant,” the court’s ruling said, “a mentally ill patient who engages in self-representation at a civil hearing runs the risk of undermining his or her dignity and autonomy by presenting the case ineffectively as a result of the underlying mental illness,” the ruling said.

The court also ruled that ineffective legal representation runs the risk of causing the state to wrongly infringe a person’s rights.

In essence, the court said that people facing involuntary treatment should be deprived of the right to represent themselves to ensure that the government doesn't wrongly infringe on other, more fundamental rights.

“The state has no recognized interest in injecting therapeutic medication into the bloodstream of a patient who is competent to refuse the medication,” the ruling said, “and the state’s interest in not allowing mental health patients to proceed unrepresented flows directly from that fact: the State has a strong interest in not exercising the most profound governmental power – the power to invade the body of a citizen – when that exercise of power is unwarranted.”

In essence, the court said that people facing involuntary treatment should be deprived of the right to represent themselves to ensure that the government doesn’t wrongly infringe on other, more fundamental rights.

McCullough said the court’s ruling left some things open to interpretation, such as whether Vermonters wishing to represent themselves may sometimes be allowed do so even if they don’t technically have the right.

The Supreme Court also suggested that it may be appropriate for client and attorney to work together on such cases, with the client participating in parts of the proceedings as his or her own attorney, and a trained attorney helping.