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Should lawyers be provided in child support contempt cases?

When individuals are facing criminal charges, they have a constitutional right to receive representation from a lawyer. We're all familiar with the Miranda Rights section that informs individuals that they have the right to an attorney, and that if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided at no cost.

Although the right to a lawyer has historically only applied in criminal cases, the Supreme Court recently considered whether individuals who are in child support contempt should be provided an attorney. If the ruling passes, it would change the way almost every family law matter in Georgia is handled.

Because individuals who do not pay child support or spousal support can face jail time, some of the Supreme Court justices wondered whether a lawyer should be appointed to protect their civil rights.

Many judges do not consider jail time in contempt cases punishment. They say it is coercion and that individuals "hold the keys to their own jail cells." As soon as an individual complies with the court-ordered payments, he or she can be released.

One man who was jailed for failing to pay child support disagreed. He said that he was too poor to make his payments, and that a lawyer could have defended him in front of the judge.

If there had been a substantial change in the man's circumstances, he could have applied for a modification of his child support payments. If his circumstances were the same, perhaps jail time was the most appropriate response.

Raising a child is not inexpensive. Although the man may have struggled to make child support payments, the mother of his child likely struggled just as much to support the child on her.

Source: The New York Times, "Justices Grapple With Issue of Right to lawyers in Child Support Cases," Adam Liptak, 23 March 2011

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