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In Re S.M., A Person Coming Under the Juvenile Court Law. v. S.P

September 5, 2012

IN RE S.M., A PERSON COMING UNDER THE JUVENILE COURT LAW. THE COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
S.P., DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of San Diego County, David B. Oberholtzer, Judge. (Super. Ct. No. EJ003313)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: McINTYRE, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Reversed and remanded.

In a juvenile dependency proceeding, a parent is liable for costs to the county for legal services rendered by an attorney appointed by a juvenile court to represent the parent and the minor in the dependency proceeding. (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 903.1, undesignated statutory references are to this code.) In this case, we conclude the juvenile court improperly considered Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits in determining a parent's ability to pay for such legal services. (§ 903.45, subd. (b) (§ 903.45(b)).) Accordingly, we reverse the reimbursement order and remand the matter to the juvenile court for a new hearing.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The County of San Diego Office of Revenue and Recovery (the County) requested that S.P., the parent of the child at issue in this juvenile court dependency proceeding, pay for the cost of legal services incurred by her and the child in this matter. The letter asked that S.P. complete an attached financial statement and return it to the County. The letter also indicated that S.P. had a right to a hearing if arrangements to pay could not be made.

S.P. completed two financial statements for the County. The statements indicated her income source was "SSI/SSA" for a total of about $840 per month. The statements also listed her assets and monthly expenses. S.P. requested a hearing after the county financial evaluation officer presumably concluded that she had the ability to pay for the cost of legal services incurred by her and the child in this matter.

At the hearing, S.P. appeared without counsel. A county representative requested that S.P. make monthly payments of $20 for the $3,225 that was owed. S.P. presented a document from the Social Security Administration showing that she received $420 per month in social security benefits and about $430 per month in SSI benefits. She also presented other documentary evidence showing her bills.

S.P. testified that she could not afford to pay $20 per month because "social security" was her only income. She admitted, however, that her sister helped pay her expenses. The juvenile court questioned S.P. regarding how she made payments of about $430 per month on her recently purchased 2011 Honda CR-V and $2,500 in furniture. S.P. claimed that renter's insurance paid for the furniture after her apartment flooded and she obtained a loan without a co-signor to purchase the car. The juvenile court ordered S.P. to pay reimbursement in the amount of $20 per month, finding that her testimony was not "believable." S.P. timely appealed from the reimbursement order. At oral argument, the parties represented that the juvenile court has since terminated jurisdiction.

DISCUSSION

I. Right to Counsel

S.P. asserts the juvenile court erred by failing to advise her of her right to counsel and further erred by implying she had no right to counsel. If she had the benefit of counsel at the hearing, S.P. claims she would have (1) introduced evidence to explain the car and furniture purchases and her student financial aid, (2) presented argument regarding the county's ability to use her disability funds to pay for legal services, and (3) challenged the amount due for legal services. We reject S.P.'s arguments because she received written notice of her right to appointed counsel prior to the juvenile court hearing.

Subdivision (a) of section 903.1 makes a parent liable for legal costs rendered to the parent and the minor in juvenile court proceedings. Section 903.45 states the juvenile court shall order any person liable for the cost of legal services under section 903.1 to appear before a county financial evaluation officer for a financial evaluation of his or her ability to pay those costs. (§ 903.45(b).)

If the county financial evaluation officer determines that a person has the ability to pay all or part of the costs, the officer must petition the court for an order requiring the person to pay that sum to the county. (§ 903.45(b).) If a person responsible for the minor's costs disagrees with the determination made by the county financial evaluation officer, that person is entitled to a hearing before the juvenile court. (§ 903.45(b).) Section 903.45(b) further provides that "[a]t the hearing, any person so responsible for costs shall be entitled to have, but shall not be limited to, the opportunity to be heard in person, to present witnesses and other documentary evidence, to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses, to disclosure of the evidence against him or her, and to ...


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