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No right to counsel for parents unable to pay child support

If you recall back in March, we discussed whether parents should be automatically appointed counsel by the court. The debate arose after a father filed a lawsuit, claiming that he had a right to a lawyer because he could not afford one himself. He had failed to make child support payments and was subsequently put in jail for up to a year.

His claim made it to the U.S. Supreme Court who took the case and ultimately ruled on the issue last week. The Supreme Court decided that there is no automatic right to counsel for civil litigants, including parents who are behind in child support payments.

A jail sentence is not a rare consequence in this type of situation. Often courts will penalize delinquent parents with a jail sentence until they can make the child support payments. And while criminal defendants do have a right to counsel, parents who find themselves in trouble for failure to pay child support do not have that same right.

But the father in this situation had told the judge who first heard his case that he could not afford to make the child support payments. To address that, the Supreme Court did say that states must have some type of safeguard in place, such as checking the parent's financial situation. Ultimately, the states have to determine if there is even an ability to pay.

For most, it makes little sense to throw a parent in jail for failure to pay child support until they can make the payment. If the parent is simply not financially able to pay, the child support agreement should instead be modified to reflect the parent's ability to pay.

Source: The Wall Street Journal online, "SCOTUS: Civil Litigants Do Not Have Automatic Right to Counsel," Nathan Koppel, 21 June 2011

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