All in the Family: Towards a New Representational Model for Parents and Children
Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, Forthcoming
50 Pages Posted: 1 Dec 2010
Date Written: November 30, 2010
The presumption that parents act in their children’s interests governs both daily life and legal doctrine. This Article demonstrates that this presumption, while usually correct, is problematic when unquestioned because it masks any conflict between parents and children, and is at odds with the individualistic framework of the ethical rules governing attorneys. This harms families and puts attorneys at risk. This Article explores this representation problem in the previously largely ignored context of special education for children with disabilities. The Supreme Court, in Winkelman v. Parma City School District, recently established that parents and children each have substantive yet “intertwined” rights to a child’s appropriate education. Nonetheless, courts and attorneys continue to assume that parents speak for children, even in cases with a high risk of conflict.
To best serve families and protect attorneys, this Article proposes a novel reconception of representation in education cases. Family representation posits the family as the client, with the attorney owing duties to each member individually and as part of the group. A family representation framework brings four real-world benefits: (1) it recognizes the interconnected nature of the relationships and rights of parents and children; (2) it engages both parties in the process, particularly important for children who have previously been overlooked; (3) it is economical, increasing the number of represented parties but not the number of attorneys; and (4) it brings attorney practice into accord with ethical standards. This model has ramifications beyond the educational sphere as it could also be fruitfully applied in torts and benefits actions by a parent and child against the state or other third party. Ultimately, reconceiving the attorney’s role as representing the family while respecting the voices of each member harmonizes the competing principles of individual autonomy and family unity to the benefit of parents, children and attorneys.
Keywords: education, parent and child, professional responsibility, ethics, family representation
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