Supreme Court Hears Argument Over Representation In Child Support Cases

New Jersey children are entitled to support from both parents, regardless of whether the parents are married or live together. Child support determinations are made in New Jersey by using a strict formula, and it is the role of an experienced family law attorney to see that the formula is properly applied.

Child support is also one of the few areas of American law where parents can be jailed for failing to pay a debt. Many fathers are jailed for failing to pay child support because a court can hold a delinquent father in civil contempt.

Civil contempt is not a criminal matter, but rather a coercive measure a court can use to force a person to comply with a court order. Many judges say that delinquent fathers “hold the keys to their own cells” because a father can be released by complying with the court’s child support order.

Fathers’ rights advocates say that the threat of jail should entitle poor fathers to a court-appointed attorney in child support hearings. The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments on a case involving an indigent father who was jailed for being delinquent on his child support payments. The New York Times reports that the Justices appeared frustrated during oral arguments.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy told one attorney that a blanket rule requiring court-appointed attorneys would change the entire landscape of domestic relations proceedings. He also told a lawyer on the other side that a ruling requiring a court-appointed attorney in only some situations was likely unworkable and then mused as to what such a ruling would say.

“There’s no absolute right,” the Justice said. “But there might be in some other case, depending. We don’t give much help to the system that way.”

Source: New York Times, “Justices Grapple With Issue of Right to Lawyers in Child Support Cases,” Adam Liptak, 3/23/11