Should Your Right to an Attorney Pertain to Child Support Cases?

Anyone who has ever watched a TV police drama is familiar with the line “. . . You have the right to speak to an attorney . . . If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.” (1) The question currently being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court is whether this right, which usually pertains to defendants in criminal cases, should be extended to include defendants in civil cases, specifically child support matters. (2)

The particular case under consideration involves a South Carolina father who has been held in civil contempt on several occasions and sentenced to as much as one year in jail at a time for failure to make his child support payments. (2)

Since 1963, the Supreme Court has held that people facing incarceration must have the opportunity to be represented by an attorney. People who cannot afford an attorney are provided with one. That ruling, however, was tied to the Sixth Amendment and only related to criminal proceedings, not civil matters. Still, a number of states, including New Jersey, make provisions for impoverished people in child support cases. (2)

Back in 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that all parents facing possible jail time as a result of violating court-ordered child support payments must be told that they have a right to legal counsel. Low-income parents must be informed that they have the right to have a lawyer appointed to them. If not so informed, the court cannot use the threat of jail against the defendant in those proceedings. (3)

The question before the U.S. Supreme Court now is whether this right should be extended nationwide. One of the problems, the Court noted, is where to draw the line. If this right was granted to defendants in child support cases, what would prevent it from being applied to other civil cases, including alimony, or even immigration and extradition issues. It was also noted that in some states, like New Jersey, the expense for providing legal counsel for indigent defendants may become cost-prohibitive, preventing those states from pursuing collections of child support diligently. (2)

It could be sometime this summer before the Supreme Court issues a ruling on this matter. (4)



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