The Second Department, reversing the order of commitment in this matrimonial case, noted that defendant faced possible jail time for civil contempt stemming from a failure to pay child support. Therefore defendant had a right to assigned counsel if found indigent. The judge should have have ascertained defendant’s financial condition:
“In general, the respondent in a civil contempt proceeding who faces the possibility of the imposition of a term of imprisonment, however short, has the right to the assignment of counsel upon a finding of indigence” … . “Moreover, a parent has the statutory right to counsel in a proceeding in which it is alleged that he or she has willfully failed to comply with a prior child support order” … .
Here, the defendant informed the Supreme Court on multiple occasions that he could not afford to retain an attorney. Therefore, prior to issuing an order of commitment, the court should have inquired into the defendant’s current financial circumstances to determine whether he had become eligible for assigned counsel … . Hoffman v Hoffman, 2023 NY Slip Op 04959, Second Dept 10-4-23
Practice Point: Here defendant was found in civil contempt for failure to pay child support. Because the judge was going to order jail-time, defendant had the right to assigned counsel if he could not afford an attorney. The judge should have conducted an inquest to determine defendant’s financial condition before issuing the order of commitment.