In 2008, as part of our Gideon’s New Trumpet report, the BBA reiterated and extended our support for a broad expansion of the civil right to counsel to adversarial proceedings where particular basic human needs are implicated. That included contempt hearings in which the defendant faces incarceration, “[b]ecause of the potential loss of liberty at stake”. In the case of DOR v. Grullon, we joined in a brief with the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA), asking the justices to find that, under the federal and state constitutions, as well as case law, due process requires the appointment of counsel for an indigent defendant facing attorneys for the Commonwealth and a realistic risk of incarceration in a civil contempt proceeding.
Here, the defendant-appellant—a partially disabled, indigent veteran—was incarcerated for non-payment of child support on a civil contempt, after having made unsuccessful attempts to modify his order to reflect a loss of income. Though he was represented on appeal by Veterans’ Legal Services (“VLS”), the petitioner was then acting pro se (with limited VLS guidance) in the matter, which had been brought by the Department of Revenue (DOR). As argued in the BBA’s Gideon’s New Trumpet report, this issue is important for access to justice because “[p]oor defendants are vulnerable to incarceration for civil contempt as they may not have the resources to satisfy the court order.” The instant case arose from a family-law matter, but, as we learned in consultation with our sections, contempt hearings involving indigent alleged contemnors are also sometimes seen in other types of proceedings, such as bankruptcy.