Under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, no person may be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” Traditionally, this has been interpreted to require that anyone who is accused of a crime be given a fair trial. Because one factor of a fair trial is the provision of an attorney, the public defender program provides defendants with a defense attorney if they cannot afford to retain one. As many defendants have little experience with the law and the legal system, this attorney can make the difference between freedom and jail time.
However, because the constitutional requirement of due process is generally only applied to criminal cases, defendants in civil matters do not automatically receive an attorney if they can’t afford one. Therefore, in Georgia and four other states, defendants who are charged with contempt of court for failure to pay child support, which is usually handled as a civil case, do not receive a state-funded attorney if they can’t afford to hire one.
But because these defendants are often sentenced to jail for nonpayment of child support, many are claiming that the state’s failure to provide them with an attorney is unconstitutional. In fact, a group of six plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit against the state, hoping to force a change in the law that will provide attorneys to defendants who are facing jail time for failure to pay child support.
We will continue our discussion of this topic and the lawsuit against Georgia in a blog post later this week.
Source: MSNBC, “Unable to pay child support, poor parents land behind bars,” Mike Brunker, Sept. 12, 2011