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Is there a right to counsel in civil and child custody cases?

Advocates are pushing for the right to counsel to apply to civil cases for low-income citizens in non-criminal cases. The constitutional right to counsel, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, is applied to certain defendants charged with a crime in the United States.

When people who are unable to hire a lawyer are in need of an attorney in non-criminal cases, they are often left without adequate means to access the court system. This happens in very serious non-criminal cases involving child custody and child support as well as cases where a spouse is fighting for a joint custody arrangement in family or juvenile court.

Access to an attorney has an extremely important impact on low-income families in family courts, especially when the best interest of the child is at stake. Many advocates argue that it is contrary to the spirit of the constitution to deny a low-income spouse the access to the courts that a private attorney provides.

Activists pushing for an expansion of the right to counsel have used non-profit groups and pro bono attorneys to help balance the scales of justice. Despite these well-intentioned efforts to balance the access for financially challenged parties in custody battles, most attorneys agree these efforts have not gone far enough.

Other important cases include the need for representation in eviction and other housing court hearings. When a resident cannot afford the rent, it's difficult to see how this same resident would be able to afford an attorney to prevent eviction or at least get a fair opportunity to be heard.

Legal Aid advocates point to the fact that a country that leads the world in civil liberties should be able to find a way to provide basic representation in critical civil cases involving vitally important issues like child custody.

The debate has begun in several state legislatures around the country, including Maryland's legislature.

Source: VOA News, "Activists Push for Right to Counsel in U.S. Civil Cases," Mana Rabiee, Dec. 2, 2011

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