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What is Contempt of Court?

Published in Civil Law on May 30, 2017

Reading Time: 3 minutes

You may have heard the phrase “contempt of court” during the public broadcasting of a trial or television show that depicts a dramatic courtroom scene. While you may grasp the idea that it is not a positive thing, you may not fully understand what it means. There are two types of contempt of court: civil and criminal. Learn the differences between the two, what it means to be in civil contempt of court, and how to remedy this issue should you find yourself in contempt of court.

What is the Difference Between Civil vs. Criminal Contempt of Court?

Criminal contempt of court is most likely what people imagine when they hear “contempt of court.” Criminal contempt stems from actions an individual takes while in the courtroom that the judge does not appreciate, such as disrupting a trial, yelling at the judge, or refusing to testify. This is when the judge can order that the person be held in criminal contempt of court. In this case, the individual would face a sentence for committing criminal contempt. The sentence aims to punish the person for disrupting the courtroom, and may involve jail time or a fine.

Civil contempt of court stems not from something someone does during a trial, but for failing to adhere to a court order, resulting in losses to another party. For example, failure to pay child support can lead to the courts holding the person in civil contempt, if the party receiving support files an action to do so. Consequences for civil contempt are not necessarily meant to punish the individual, but rather to restore the rights of the party that suffered losses from the person’s failure to abide by a court order.

What Are the Prosecution Differences Between Civil and Criminal Contempt?

Another significant difference between civil and criminal contempt is that the prosecution does not need to prove the individual’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in civil cases, as he or she does in criminal contempt cases. Furthermore, the penalties for civil contempt do not have to be as definite as those for criminal contempt.

A person held in criminal contempt may have a set sentence, such as jail time for a certain duration. In civil contempt, sanctions can be indefinite – ending with the eventual resolution of the underlying case, or when the individual decides to comply with the court order. As soon as the party in question complies with the court order, civil contempt will end.

It is possible for the courts to incarcerate an individual in civil contempt. Unlike those held in criminal contempt, people in civil contempt do not have the same constitutional rights. The courts do not guarantee an individual trial by jury, despite the requirement to give the person notice of the opportunity for the courts to hear the case.

What Do I Do if the Court Holds Me in Civil Contempt?

You might find yourself in direct or indirect contempt of court. Direct contempt of court occurs when you disobey an order in front of a judge and/or jury. Direct contempt is more likely to result in criminal instead of civil charges. Indirect contempt occurs outside of the courtroom, and is often the result of another party filing for civil contempt against you. If you have disobeyed a court order, resulting in civil contempt, you risk possible jail time and/or fines.

To avoid negative consequences, it is best to comply with the court’s demands as soon as possible. If you disobeyed for a reason such as the inability to financially afford child support, remedy the issue with the proper office, such as making a modification to your court order. In the meantime, show up to court at the date requested to avoid getting into further legal trouble. Civil contempt is not as serious as criminal contempt, but it can lead to similar consequences. It is up to you to obey the court order or otherwise resolve the underlying issue.

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