Do 'Deadbeat' Dads Have Right to a Free Lawyer?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on March 29, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Michael Turner happens to be one of those deadbeat parents who, year after year, fail to pay child support. Like many a deadbeat dad, that failure has repeatedly landed him in jail.

Despite being indigent, he has never been provided counsel to help fight incarceration.

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in Turner's case. The question?

Are indignant deadbeat parents entitled to free counsel if they face jail time?

All but six states (Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Georgia, South Carolina) provide indigent parents with free counsel if they face jail time for failure to pay child support, reports The Seattle Times. Despite this, thirteen states oppose making the practice mandatory.

The Sixth Amendment only provides that a defendant be given counsel in the event that he faces a criminal prosecution. Child support issues are wholly civil.

Though not criminal in nature, a judge may hand a deadbeat dad jail time for failure to comply with a civil order--known as civil contempt--with the understanding that once the man pays up, he can leave. This is a fairly standard procedure in all types of civil cases.

The issue is that Turner spent one year in jail for failure to pay child support. Yes, one year.

The ACLU is contending that, when deadbeat parents are sent to jail for such lengthy periods of time, they are effectively being sentenced to a criminal punishment. They should thus be given counsel if they cannot afford it.

The states (and Turner's ex) point to the fact that most of these men can pay, they just choose not to, explains Slate. They also fear that providing lawyers in child support cases will force them to provide lawyers in other civil actions, bogging down the system and costing it millions.

Though both sides have sound arguments, there's no way to predict just what the Court will do. In the meantime, it's up to the states, so if you're a deadbeat dad, you may just get a lawyer.

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