Right to counsel

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Litigation, Civil Contempt in Family Court

In McBride v. McBride, 431 S.E.2d 14 (N.C. 1993), the North Carolina Supreme Court held that appointment of counsel for indigent defendants was in fact required in a civil contempt case, if the case could result in a loss of liberty for the defendant.


The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Turner v. Rogers, 131 S.Ct. 2507 (2011) (Fourteenth Amendment does not require right to counsel in civil contempt, at least where opponent is neither the state nor represented and matter is not "especially complex") may have a negative impact on the McBride decision. The McBride court relied on a belief that there was a federal constitutional presumption in favor of counsel when physical liberty is threatened, but Turner put that idea to rest. And given that no independent state ground was provided, the McBride decision is on shaky ground, at least for cases within Turner's purview. 


Subsequent to Turner, in Young v. Young, 736 S.E.2d 538 (N.C. App. 2012), the Court of Appeals cited both Turner and McBride but gave little indication of what it would do on civil contempt cases generally because it found that the defendant had failed to meet his burden of proving that he was indigent. The Young court did say, though, that "Contrary to Plaintiff's assertion, Turner does not stand for the proposition that counsel is not required only when the opposing party is also unrepresented; rather it finds both that in such a scenario, counsel is not required if there are appropriate safeguards in place, and that counsel is not 'automatically require[d]' in all civil contempt hearings for child support from indigent litigants.'"

Appointment of Counsel: categorical Qualified: yes