Highest Court in the US Rejects Publicly Funded Attorneys for Child Support Enforcement Defense Cases

Times may be tough, but the US Supreme Court isn’t budging.

There has long been debate on whether the government should provide attorneys to parents defending in child support enforcement cases.

Some states have decided that, yes, under their state constitution, the government should afford counsel to defendants in child support contempt cases.

Their rationale: if a court holds a parent in contempt, the court can incarcerate them. Such a case is therefore similar to a criminal case, in which there is a right to counsel.

In a recent case before the US Supreme Court, however, the high court ruled not to extend the right to government-provided counsel to child support enforcement cases.

The court justifies its holding because defendants in support enforcement proceedings can earn their own release simply by complying with the court’s order. Not so in criminal cases.

If the parent pursuing enforcement has an attorney though, then the defendant is entitled to certain “substantial procedural safeguards”, but not publicly funded legal representation.

In the case before the Supreme Court, a South Carolina father contended that he was poor and unable to meet his support obligations. But, without a lawyer, he argued, he was unable to present his defense effectively.

The court was mindful of the fact that many parents seeking enforcement of the other parent’s support obligation often don’t have attorneys themselves.

Procedural safeguards include notices that ability to pay is a key issue in the case, requiring the court to make findings as to the defendant’s ability to pay.

Read more in this New York Times article: Court Issues Split Ruling on Poor’s Right to Counsel and this New York Times editorial: Legal Help for Indigent Parents.