An Attorney Who Can’t Handle an Assigned Matter Effectively Must Either Retain Substitute Counsel or So Advise the Court

In re Adoption of a Child by C.J., 463 N.J. Super. 254 (App. Div. 2020). This opinion, issued today,must have been a very distasteful opinion for Judge Koblitz to write. As will be seen, the bottom line is “to be continued,” so quoting the first paragraph of the opinion in full and inviting readers to look at the rest of the decision for the unfortunate details suffices for today:

“We write to emphasize that an attorney has an obligation to inform the court if he or she is not able to handle an assigned matter professionally due to a lack of expertise and inability to obtain sufficient knowledge to represent the client effectively, and is also unable to retain a substitute attorney knowledgeable in the area. We sua sponte determine that appellate counsel was ineffective and new appellate counsel must be assigned in this contested stepparent adoption matter. We therefore adjourn this appeal to appoint substitute counsel. Additionally, an adjournment of this time-sensitive contested adoption is necessary because a transcript of the trial court’s opinion was not provided, nor was the seeming lack of a decision mentioned by either counsel in briefing.”

This was an assigned counsel matter under Madden v. Delran, 126 N.J. 591 (1992). The lesson here is that if an attorney is assigned a case that s/he cannot handle or learn to handle effectively, and cannot find substitute counsel, it is incumbent on the attorney to advise the court so that effective replacement counsel can be appointed instead.

Doubtless it was also unpleasant for the appellate counsel in today’s case who were found to be ineffective. But Judge Koblitz did state in a footnote that the panel did not render an opinion “as to whether the representation provided constitutes gross negligence,” which would have implicated Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1(a).