The Supreme Court has made another important ruling this week.  In a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court refused to require states to provide a lawyer for a poor or indigent people in a civil case where incarceration is a possibility.

What Was The Background In The Supreme Court Civil Litigant Case?

The case involved Michael Turner, a South Carolina father who was sent to jail for up to 12 months after missing child-support payments. He claimed that he could not afford to make the child support payments.  Turner claimed that he should receive free legal representation under the “Gideon” rights.  Gideon rights refer to the decision in Gideon v Wainwright, in which the Supreme Court decided that a criminal defendant has a constitutional right to counsel.

Why Do Civil Litigants Not Deserve To Have An Attorney Appointed For Them So Long As The Hearings Are “Fundamentally Fair?”

In making their decision, the Court denied the right for a civil litigant to have an attorney appointed to them free of charge.  Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, noted that both parties in a child support case are often unrepresented by lawyers.  Justice Breyer continued that, “the Due Process Clause does not always require the provision of counsel in civil proceedings where incarceration is threatened.” In this specific case, no one told Turner that his ability to pay was an important part of whether he would be incarcerated or not and that he should fill out a form to disclose his financial information.

The Justices agreed that under Turner’s circumstances, incarceration would have violated the Due Process Clause.  The Court did require that states have procedural safeguards in place to ensure that civil cases that may end up in incarceration are “fundamentally fair.”  This means that the state must take care to determine whether a parent is truly able to pay child support before being jailed.  For those that are wrongly incarcerated, they should be able to use a form to elicit a parent’s financial information and an opportunity to answer questions about his or her financial status.

To read the entire ruling - Click Here