Friday, March 10, 2006
Case Law Development: New Jersey Supreme Court Requires Appointed Counsel for Indigent Parents Facing Coercive Incarceration for Non-payment of Child Support
The New Jersey Supreme Court has joined a number of other states in concluding that, even when a court is pursuing civil child support enforcement proceedings, if an indigent litigant faces a risk of incarceration, he or she has a right to assigned counsel. The Court rejected the contention that a judge can adequately protect an indigent parent by conducting a "thorough and searching ability-to-pay hearing. However well intentioned and scrupulously fair a judge may be, when a litigant is threatened with the loss of his or her liberty, process is what matters." The court concluded that from now on in enforcement hearings, "parents facing potential incarceration must be advised of their right to appointed counsel if they are indigent and, on request and verification of indigency, must be afforded counsel. Otherwise incarceration may not be used as an option to coerce compliance with support orders."
In considering the practical implications of its ruling the court commented: "We realize that unless there is a funding source for the provision of counsel to indigent parents in [child support enforcement] proceedings, coercive incarceration will not be an available sanction. We will not use our authority to impress lawyers into service without promise of payment to remedy the constitutional defect in our system. The benefits and burdens of our constitutional system must be borne by society as a whole. In the past, the Legislature has acted responsibly to provide funding to assure the availability of constitutionally mandated counsel to the poor. We trust that the Legislature will address the current issue as well."
Pasqua v. Council, 2006 N.J. LEXIS 171 (March 8, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited March 9, 2006 bgf)