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Fulton Co. judge grants class-action status in child support cases

Georgia is one of only a handful of states across the country that does not provide lawyers to indigent parents who are facing civil contempt charges in child support matters.

As a result of that, an estimated 3,500 parents were jailed in the state last year following child support proceedings brought by state attorneys on behalf of the state's Department of Human Services in which they appeared without a legal advocate.

A judicial order issued recently by a Fulton County Superior Court judge promises to change that common outcome. On December 30, 2010, Judge Jerry Baxter ruled that parents who face possible jail time because they are delinquent on child support payments can attain class-action status against the state if they are indigent and involved in civil contempt actions brought by state attorneys.

A lawsuit filed against Georgia last year by five parents claims that the state is fostering contemporary debtor's prisons when it incarcerates parents in arrears who are unemployed or disabled.

Baxter's ruling seems to support that charge. If plaintiffs win their lawsuit, the state would be required to put aside funds to pay for legal counsel in cases involving indigents.

The state will appeal the ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that a South Carolina man jailed for failure to pay child support was not entitled to legal counsel, but that case did not involve a state attorney or South Carolina's social services agency.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution "Judge allows thousands to join child support lawsuit" Bill Rankin, Jan. 3, 2012

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