Georgia is one of just a few states that don't provide lawyers for parents who can't afford them while they're held in civil contempt for nonpayment. The state says its tight budget already struggles to pay for appointed counsel in criminal cases. A spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office said it will appeal the status ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court.

According to the Superior Court judge who granted the class-action status, more than 3,500 parents have been jailed for failure to pay since the beginning of last year without legal representation. The lawsuit, if successful, would require the state to set aside funds for parents with cases brought against them by the state Department of Human Services. It would not apply to parents who hire attorneys to hold their spouses in contempt of court for failure to pay child support.

The U.S. Supreme Court made this distinction in an earlier case, in which a South Carolina man was jailed for not paying child support. The Supreme Court ruled that he was not entitled to have an attorney appointed to him because the child's mother wasn't represented by a state attorney and the DHS was not a party in the case.

According to the Supreme Court, 70 percent of child-support delinquency cases nationwide involve parents with either no income or that of less than $10,000 per year. The class-action suit claims the state is creating debtor's prisons filled with people unable to pay child support because they're unable to find work.

The lawsuit represents yet another effect of the lagging economy, both on the state budget and those who need but can't afford legal representation.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Judge allows thousands to join child support lawsuit," Bill Rankin, Jan. 3, 2012