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Georgia’s High Court Finds No Categorical Right to Counsel in Civil Contempt Proceedings

Georgia’s High Court Finds No Categorical Right to Counsel in Civil Contempt Proceedings

by David Reutter

The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed an appellate court’s ruling that decertified a plaintiff class of indigent parents who were jailed without being provided counsel following civil contempt proceedings brought by the state Department of Human Services (DHS). The Court held on July 11, 2014 that there is no categorical right to counsel in such proceedings, and the right “depends upon highly individualized considerations.”

The trial court had certified a class of unrepresented and indigent parents who faced incarceration in civil contempt proceedings in child support cases; the appellate court decertified the class because the named plaintiffs had failed to insist upon counsel in their own proceedings. The Georgia Supreme Court held the right to counsel is not waived “simply by failing to insist upon counsel in proceedings in which no one advised them that they could ask for counsel.”

While it did not agree with the appellate court’s rationale, the Supreme Court, citing precedent, held “the Due Process Clause does not automatically require the provision of counsel at civil contempt proceedings brought by an agency represented by a lawyer.”

“[W]hether any particular parent is entitled to a lawyer at government expense depends always, we think, on the particular and unique circumstances of [the] case, including the complexity of the case, as well as the extent to which alternative measures might be employed to ensure that the proceeding is fundamentally fair,” the Court stated. “We conclude only that there is no absolute inflexible and categorical right to appointed counsel in such proceedings as a matter of due process, even when [DHS], represented by its own lawyers, pursues the incarceration of an indigent parent.”

Justice Robert Benham filed a dissent, alluding to how such proceedings create debtors’ prisons. He noted that the lead plaintiff, Randy Miller, was found by the trial court to owe $3,000, had less than a dollar in his bank account and no assets when held in contempt and jailed for nonpayment of child support. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.40].

“The state has fostered a fundamentally unfair system for collecting child support from indigent parents,” Benham wrote. See: Miller v. Deal, 295 Ga. 504 (Ga. 2014).


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Related legal case

Miller v. Deal