It Takes Pro-Se Litigants to Change the Law of Legal Malpractice

Legal Malpractice, we often think, is a body of law, written by lawyers, concerning lawyers, judged by lawyers and results in decisions concerning solely lawyers.  However, sometimes this is simply not true.  Venecia V. v August V.  2013 NY Slip Op 08140  Decided on December 5, 2013 Appellate Division, First Department  Saxe, J., J.  is one such example. 
 

Pro-se Husband and pro-se wife are engaged in divorce and custody dispute, and huge  legal malpractice law changes follow.  "This appeal, arising in the context of a contentious post-divorce dispute, raises a variety of challenges to the court's determinations involving custody, visitation and expenses. While the bulk of these issues may be briefly addressed seriatim, we must address at greater length the unresolved question of whether parents who are directed to pay the fees of the attorney appointed to represent the children may raise the defense of legal malpractice to that attorney's claim for fees. Determination of this issue requires us to decide whether, as defendant father claims, Mars v Mars (19 AD3d 195 [1st Dept 2005], lv dismissed 6 NY3d 821 [2006]) gives him legal standing to assert the legal malpractice defense.

In Mars v Mars (19 AD3d at 196), this Court held that a parent may assert legal malpractice as an affirmative defense to a Law Guardian's fee application "to the extent of challenging that portion of the fees attributable to advocacy, as opposed to guardianship." Our ruling was limited by the then-prevailing view that attorneys appointed as law guardians for children in divorce cases often functioned in a role similar to a guardian ad litem, advocating for [*3]what they believed to be the best interests of the child, as opposed to what the child desired. Accepting the rule of Bluntt v O'Connor (291 AD2d 106 [4th Dept 2002], lv denied 98 NY2d 605 [2002]), which held that absent special circumstances, a parent in a visitation dispute lacks standing to bring a legal malpractice claim against a child's court-appointed law guardian, we limited our ruling to the portion of the law guardian's fee representing the work that consisted of advocacy rather than guardianship.

 

Accordingly, after 2007, the distinction made by our ruling in Mars is no longer necessary in cases such as this; where the child is capable of decision-making, the task of the attorney for the child is generally solely advocacy, rather than guardianship, as long as the child is capable of knowing, voluntary and considered judgment. The portion of the Mars decision allowing a parent to raise malpractice as a defense to a fee application for that portion of the fee earned by advocacy has become applicable to the attorney's entire fee claim. Rule 7.2 does not in any way vitiate the Mars ruling; on the contrary, it renders it more generally applicable.

We reaffirm the essence of the Mars v Mars ruling, namely that a parent may assert legal malpractice as an affirmative defense to the fee claim of an attorney for a child. The attorney for the child, no less than the attorneys for the parties, is serving as a professional and must be equally accountable to professional standards. That the children cannot hire and pay for their own attorneys, leaving it to the court to make the necessary appointment, does not alter the applicable standards, or the means by which they may be raised.

The attorney for the children protests that if this type of defense is allowed generally, parents dissatisfied with the results of their custody claims will use malpractice challenges to avoid paying, resulting in a proliferation of applications for enforcement of ordered fees. She also suggests that the threat of malpractice claims from disgruntled parents will have a negative impact on the effectiveness of attorneys for children, by giving those parents control over the representation of their children.

We disagree. The possibility that a parent who feels aggrieved over the developments in a custody or visitation dispute may claim malpractice as a means of avoiding payment of the attorney's fee does not warrant granting these attorneys complete immunity against the defense of [*4]legal malpractice. "

 

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