Last week, six men filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court asking that indigent parents in Georgia who are jailed for missing child support payments be appointed attorneys. Essentially, they are requesting that the state pay for lawyers for those who are too poor to make their child support payments, just as they would for people who have been charged with crimes and are facing time behind bars.

Without skilled legal representation, people who face incarceration in child support contempt proceedings are not able to effectively present evidence and explain their situations. By having the benefit of an attorney’s assistance, they may have a better chance to avoid time behind bars.

The men in this lawsuit argue that the state has a system of “debtors’ prisons” in which parents who are not able to meet child support obligations through no fault of their own are held. They say that people are often locked up because they have lost their jobs, are disabled or are otherwise unable to work. While they are incarcerated, they are not even able to look for work. Therefore, they say the system prevents them from attempting to pay their financial obligations to their children.

While the lawsuit was filed by six men, their lawyers are seeking class action status, as this situation applies to a significant number of people throughout Georgia in the same circumstances.

People who oppose the lawsuit argue that providing attorneys to these individuals would be cost-prohibitive and may clog up the legal system. They point out that parents can avoid jail if they pay a court-established “purge fee,” which is generally less than the amount of child support due. Further, opponents fear that this will lead to taxpayers funding lawyers for other civil proceedings, such as child custody hearings.

The court’s decision will impact a significant number of parents throughout Georgia. We will likely hear more about this case in the weeks ahead.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Lawsuit: State should provide lawyers for delinquent child support payers,” Rhonda Cook, 22 March 2011