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This week, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously that poor parents have a constitutional right to a court-appointed lawyer in cases where they face jail time for failing to pay child support. In the past, these individuals could be sentenced to jail time without the counsel of an attorney. Now, parents who cannot afford an attorney will be provided free legal representation in child support enforcement cases where they face jail time.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey has made the state legislature responsible for determining where funds will come from to pay for these child support case attorneys. Until the program has been implemented, however, the Supreme Court has ordered that no one be sentenced to jail time for falling behind on child support.
Justice Barry Albin wrote, “Those parents facing potential incarceration must be advised of their right to appointed counsel if they are indigent and, on request and verification of their indigency, must be afforded counsel,” in child support enforcement hearings. “Otherwise,” he continued, “incarceration may not be used as an option to coerce compliance with support orders.”
This ruling would not prevent the incarceration of parents, who failed to pay child support, when they had the chance to argue their case with the help of a qualified attorney.
One New Jersey lawyer, David Perry Davis, pleased with the recent ruling, has been arguing for six years that incarcerating poor people to force them to pay child support was a “futile exercise” and a violation of their constitutional rights. The Constitution states that those accused of crimes (being an act punishable by incarceration and other punishments) have the right to legal counsel.
Davis hopes the new ruling will mean the only parents incarcerated in child custody cases will be those who can pay, but refuse to pay. New Jersey is one of four states that have not provided legal representation to the defendants in child support enforcement hearings. Now, only Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Virginia fail to consistently provide legal representation to those facing incarceration in child support hearings.