Civil Contempt of Court
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
Contempt of court refers to actions which either defy a court's authority, cast disrespect on a court, or impede the ability of the court to perform its function.
Contempt takes two forms: criminal contempt and civil contempt. Actions that one might normally associate with the phrase "contempt of court," such as a party causing a serious disruption in the courtroom, yelling at the judge, or refusing to testify before a grand jury, would often constitute criminal contempt of court.
Civil contempt of court most often happens when someone fails to adhere to an order from the court, with resulting injury to a private party's rights. For example, failure to pay court ordered child support can lead to punishment for civil contempt. Typically, the aggrieved party, such as a parent who has not received court ordered child support payments, may file an action for civil contempt.
Punishment for Civil Contempt of Court vs. Criminal Contempt of Court
Unlike criminal contempt sentences, which aim to punish the act of contempt, civil contempt sanctions aim to either: (1) restore the rights of the party who was wronged by the failure to satisfy the court's order; or (2) simply move an underlying proceeding along. Civil contempt sanctions typically end when the party in contempt complies with the court order, or when the underlying case is resolved.
Like those charged with criminal contempt, the court may order incarceration of people held in civil contempt. However, unlike individuals charged with criminal contempt, people held in civil contempt are generally not given the same constitutional rights that are guaranteed to criminal contempt defendants.
Those held in civil contempt generally must be given notice of the contempt sanctions and an opportunity to be heard, but usually are not guaranteed a jury trial. Also, their contempt does not need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, while criminal contempt charges must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Finally, criminal contempt involves a specified sentence (jail and/or fine), while civil contempt sanctions can be more indefinite, lasting until either the underlying case is resolved or the party in contempt complies with the court order.
Direct and Indirect Contempt
Contempt of court may be "direct" or "indirect." Direct contempt occurs in the presence of the court - during a court proceeding, for example. Indirect contempt occurs outside the presence of the court.
Civil contempt often occurs indirectly - for example, when a party is ordered to turn over financial records within thirty days but refuses to do so. Indirect contempt is sometimes called constructive or consequential contempt.
Civil contempt of court refers to behavior which disobeys the authority of a court in a civil proceeding. Civil contempt is distinct from criminal contempt of court. Most often, civil contempt of court involves failure to satisfy a court order. Generally, sanction for civil contempt end when the party in contempt complies with the court order, or the underlying case resolves. Civil contempt can result in punishment including jail time and/or a fine.
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