In re Austin M.

In 2011, NJDC, Juvenile Law Center, Loyola Civitas ChildLaw Center, and the Children and Family Justice Center of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University School of Law, joined as amici in a brief to the Illinois Supreme Court, arguing that Austin M.’s constitutional right to counsel in a delinquency proceeding was breached where his lawyer served as both counsel and guardian ad litem (GAL). Amici submitted that these two assigned roles are incompatible, creating a per se conflict of interest, requiring reversal of his adjudication. In this dual role, the lawyer was tasked with both defending Austin against allegations of delinquency, and advising the court as to Austin’s “best interests” and how they bore on the outcome of the delinquency proceeding.

On August 30, 2012, in a tremendous victory for the juvenile defense community, the Illinois Supreme Court held that it is a per se conflict of interest for an attorney to simultaneously function as both defense counsel and guardian ad litem (GAL) in a juvenile delinquency proceeding. This victory affirms the role of juvenile defense counsel as an expressed interest advocate for the juvenile client.

In its holding, the Court agreed with amici, and found that although the trial court never expressly appointed Austin’s attorney to act as GAL, both the trial court and the attorney perceived that to be his role. The Court found that Austin’s attorney misperceived the role of juvenile defense counsel to be some type of hybrid, and as such, he functioned as both GAL and defense counsel. In so doing, counsel did not live up to his duty to provide zealous advocacy, in violation of Austin’s due process rights and the Illinois Juvenile Court Act. Additionally, the Court noted that “when a minor is charged with a criminal offense—particularly one which may subject him or her to a lifetime of collateral consequences—the minor is entitled to an attorney who is dedicated to providing the minor with a zealous defense, an attorney who will hold the prosecution to its burden of proof.”

Notably, two justices who filed concurring and dissenting opinions agreed that Austin’s delinquency adjudication should be reversed, but disagreed with the majority’s holding that the State had met its burden of proof and the decision to remand for a new trial. They instead held the evidence presented was insufficient to prove Austin guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Court: Illinois Supreme Court
March 31, 2011 (download .pdf)
Amicus Brief Discusses: Conflicts of Interest; Effective Assistance of Counsel; Guardians Ad Litem; Role of Counsel

Oral Argument: November 15, 2011 (listen here) (watch here)
August 30, 2012 (download .pdf)