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Supreme Court rules on right to counsel in contempt hearings

The law in Georgia and across the United States has long been settled on the issue of the right to an attorney when a defendant's liberty is at stake because of criminal charges. However, there are other legal situations that can jeopardize a person's liberty. One common situation involves child support contempt and enforcement hearings.

When a person faces a civil contempt hearing for failing to pay child support, a judge has the authority to send a parent to jail for failing to pay. However, many parents fail to make their child support payments because they cannot afford to pay. These same parents are usually unable to hire an attorney to protect their interests in court.

Recently, a case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on this issue. The case involved a father who was repeatedly held in civil contempt for not making his child support payments. He was jailed for as much as a year at a time. However, many believe that if he had an attorney representing him at the hearings, he would not have been sent to jail.

When he first failed to pay the $51.73 per week he owed in child support, a judge held him in contempt and sent him to jail for six months. The second time he failed to pay, the judge sent him to jail for 12 months. However, when a person is unable to obey a court order, a court cannot send a person to jail for failing to obey. Had the father in this case had an attorney, he would have been able to present the defense that he was unable to pay, and he would likely have avoided being sent to jail.

Although the Court decided that the father was treated unfairly, the Supreme Court decided that there was no automatic right to an attorney in a child support contempt hearing. Instead, the Court said that the government needs to inform defendants that their ability to pay is a crucial issue. Additionally, the Court said that the judges need to consider whether a defendant is unable to pay or if he simply refuses to pay.

Source: The Atlantic, "Turner's Trumpet: Child Support and the Right to Counsel," Andrew Cohen, 6/21/2011

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William C. Gentry, Attorney at Law

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