child support.jpgIn the past, we have written about the problems many poor parents face when confronted with a contempt hearing for non-payment of child support. Although, jail time is a very possible outcome in these hearings, lawyers are not provided in child support contempt hearings as they are in criminal cases that involve the threat of incarceration. Is there a constitutional right to an attorney in child support contempt hearings? A case addressing this issue is now in the process of being decided in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case in question involves a man who had been jailed for more than one year after he failed to make child support payments. The man stated that he did not have the money to pay his child support. He believes that if he had received a court-mandated attorney then he would have avoided jail time.

Last week, the justices of the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether there is a constitutional right to legal representation during child support enforcement cases involving the possibility of jail time. Currently, the law requires that only individuals involved in criminal court cases be provided with legal representation.

Some justices felt that it is difficult to mandate a blanket ruling to cover thousands of future child support hearings. Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that creating a law that requires court-appointed lawyers during child support cases would completely alter current domestic relations court proceedings.

Attorneys against the right to counsel in child support cases expressed their concerns over requiring states to provide attorneys in child support cases. They argued that requiring states to provide legal representation might deter the states from punishing parents who fail to make child support payments.

Others have stated that there are generally no lawyers present during a child support hearing and that requiring legal representation could disrupt the effectiveness of the proceedings.

Justice Scalia mentioned that he was frustrated with the proposal to require legal representation since it dismissed any other procedures that could satisfy due process and provide both sides with a fair hearing in child support cases.
Now that oral arguments have concluded in this case, the nine Justices of the Supreme Court will make a decision in the matter over the course of the next few months. A formal decision will be released in June.

Source: The New York Times, "Justices Grapple With Issue of Right to Lawyers in Child Support Cases," Adam Liptak, 3/23/2011