Most family law matters, such as divorce proceedings, and custody proceedings, do not involve the Maryland criminal system, or involve any imminent punishment such as jail time. However, when a non-paying child support obligor (parent who is supposed to be paying child support) is brought to court after the child support obligee (parent who is supposed to be receiving child support) files a Petition for Contempt, that obligor may be sentenced to jail time. Because this obligor faces jail time at this contempt proceeding, the proceeding, while civil in nature borderlines a criminal proceeding because of the punishment that can be imposed. While criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney have the option of obtaining a public defender, civil defendants in most cases do not. Therefore, it has often been a question whether these non paying child support obligors are entitled to an attorney due to the threat and/or possibility of incarceration?
On Monday, June 20, 2011 the Supreme Court of the United States issued an Opinion on this very question. As the New York Times reports, “The Supreme Court on Monday gave a complicated answer to the simple question of whether poor people facing jail time for failing to pay child support are entitled to court-appointed lawyers.” The Supreme Court case, Turner v. Rogers, involved in a man who had been sent to jail numerous times after civil contempt proceedings for his failure to pay child support. He was not represented by an attorney at these hearings. The Supreme Court ruled that there is not an automatic right to counsel in these civil contempt proceedings, however cautioned that if the opposing side (the obligee) has an attorney then it may be a different story. The Court cautioned that courts should warn those facing civil contempt that their non payment is a “critical issue.”
Many would argue that the Maryland courts are already meeting this standard by issuing a show cause order to those facing contempt prior to the hearing and in many counties affording those facing contempt a public defender. It has been my experience that the Judges in Maryland will not usually impose jail sentences to child support obligors at the first contempt proceedings and instead, will give them a set amount to pay (a purge amount)and/ or a new date to come back again and appear before the Judge. Many argue that jail time does not remedy the situation as those who owe child support cannot work while in jail. However, in cases of “repeat offenders” and high arrearages jail sentences may be and are imposed. Typically Judges will set a bail amount, that when it is paid will go directly to the child support that is owed.
For more information on Maryland child support, contact an experienced Maryland family law attorney.