With Turner, Access to Justice Efforts Must Expand

The Turner decision reflects the ongoing back and forth over child support enforcement efforts. Essentially, there are continuous efforts to pit the interests of men against those of women. In reality, this is a false contest with the real questions centering around poverty’s impact on families. It leaves both parents without the ability to adequately provide for their children—unfortunately, that status is not solely limited to women. Significantly for those concerned about justice, it leaves both fathers and mothers without the ability to have legal counsel in important matters tied to their freedom and needed support.

Although there is growing acceptance that pro se is here to stay, there should be some categories of cases where access to legal counsel is the norm. If the Mr. Turners of the world do not fit within that group, it is hard to imagine who would—at stake for him was a 1-year jail term. Given fairness demands, access to counsel for opposing parents is also necessary. The Supreme Court declined to require this, but there are other avenues—new state/local rules, expanding free legal services, pro bono, and unbundling. Providers must continue triage efforts, targeting those with the greatest complications and challenges for access to counsel. Mr. Turner was such a person with a history of unemployment, disability, substance abuse, and being threatened with jail on multiple occasions. In this way, we can maintain a vision for our courts that still provide justice for all, even those at the margins and who are the targets of public ire and labels like “deadbeat” which was repeatedly used by the dissent.

But we can go even a step further, more parents like Mr. Turner should end up in specialty courts like those that exist for the homeless and veterans. These courts save taxpayers the cost of jailing people who actually just need help. A fathering court could have paired Mr. Turner with rehab, employment services, and a reasonable repayment schedule in exchange for staying out of jail. In other words, it could have addressed some of the underlying poverty issues, ultimately benefiting him and his family while achieving something that more so resembles justice.

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