US Supreme Court Holds That Respondents in Child Support Contempt Proceedings Are Entitled to Legal Due Process, Including Legal Representation or Alternative Procedural Safeguards, Where the Respondent Is At Risk of Confinement

South Carolina Mother and Father have a child together, but then break up.

Father is court-ordered to pay Mother child support.

Father falls behind in his child support obligations.

Mother, who is represented by counsel, mounts a contempt case to enforce Father’s child support obligations to her.

At trial in family court, Father, who has no lawyer, tries to explain to the Court why he hasn’t paid child support.

The family court judge disregards Father’s explanation and sentences Father to a year in jail on the contempt charge.

Thanks to pro bono counsel, Father appeals, and his case rises to the United States Supreme Court.

The US Supreme Court reverses and remands Father’s case back to family court. But the Court does not hold that there is an automatic right to counsel in civil contempt cases where the defending parent faces incarceration.

Instead, the Supreme Court bases its reversal on broader (and somewhat more vague) due process grounds. Specifically, the Supreme Court finds that the family court failed to follow any procedural safeguards to ensure that Father not be held in contempt unless his failure to pay child support is indeed willful.

In Father’s case, the family court reportedly ignored Father’s offered explanation and makes no express finding about Father’s ability to pay. But sentences Father to a year in jail anyway.

The Supreme Court finds error in Mother’s representation by legal counsel in the child support enforcement proceedings, with none to the Father who faces confinement. And concludes that due process entitles Father to a level playing field.

In the form of legal representation or alternative procedural safeguards that protect the rights of the defendant facing incarceration where the plaintiff has legal representation.

Read more in this ABA Journal article: Supreme Court Finds No Automatic Right to Counsel in Child Support Contempt Proceedings and the Surpreme Court’s full opinion.