One question I hear frequently is whether you can get a court-appointed attorney in your divorce or child support case. The answer is no. There is no constitutional right to have an attorney provided for you in a private family court matter like there is in a criminal prosecution or even in a DSS abuse and neglect case. This issue recently was before the South Carolina Supreme Court in Rebecca Price v. Michael D. Turner.
In this case a father had previously been ordered to pay child support for his children and had not made a payment in over a year and a half. He was over $6,000.00 behind in his child support payments and the Court “ruled him in.” Basically, when a non-custodial parent is ordered to pay child support through the family court the clerk of court monitors the cases and requires any person not paying on time to come to court and tell the judge their reason for not paying as ordered. Mr. Turner’s excuses were that his failure to pay was due to incarceration, drug addiction, unemployment, and injury. At a hearing like this the defendant could be sentenced to one year in jail for civil contempt of court. In Price v. Turner, the defendant was sentenced to one year in jail, but he could get out of jail sooner if he paid the total child support arrears that he owed. Mr. Turner appealed this ruling because he did not have an attorney present at the hearing and he asserted that he has a constitutional right under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The SC Supreme Court held that there is no right to legal counsel for a civil contempt case. The difference between civil contempt and criminal contempt is that the person sentenced to incarceration for civil contempt can purge their prison sentence by doing the activity that they previously refused to – in this case, pay child support. In the case of criminal contempt, you cannot purge your jail sentence – you must serve the sentenced time in jail.
If you find yourself in the position that you are behind on child support and you are going to a Rule to Show Cause (contempt) hearing in the Family Court, you will not be offered to have a court appointed attorney represent you so you should either be prepared to represent yourself or retain a lawyer to defend you prior to your hearing.