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Civil Contempt of Court

Contempt of court refers to actions that either defy a court's authority, cast disrespect on a court, or impede the ability of the court to perform its function.

This article talks about the intricacies of civil contempt of court. It discusses its difference from criminal contempt and explains its nuances. By looking at its legal implications, the article aims to give you a clear understanding of what civil contempt of court means and its role in the judicial system.

Two Forms of Contempt

Contempt takes two forms: criminal contempt and civil contempt. Actions that one might typically associate with the phrase criminal contempt of court can include:

  • Causing a severe disruption in the courtroom
  • Yelling at the judge
  • Refusing to testify before a grand jury

These contempt actions often constitute criminal contempt of court.

Civil contempt of court most often happens when someone fails to adhere to an order from the court, injuring a private party's rights. For example, failure to pay court-ordered child support or alimony can lead to punishment for civil contempt. The aggrieved party, such as a parent who has not received court-ordered child support payments, may file an action for civil contempt.

The following are some of the common actions that would constitute civil contempt of court:

  • Failure to follow the Marital Settlement Agreement of divorce decree
  • Failure or refusal to provide the court-ordered alimony, child support, or spousal support payments
  • Failure to comply with the terms of the child visitation order or parenting plan
  • Failure or refusal to give back property ordered by the court to be returned
  • Violation of protective order or no contact order

Punishment for Civil Contempt of Court vs. Criminal Contempt of Court

Civil contempt sanctions aim to accomplish one of the following:

  • Restore the rights of the party wronged by the failure to satisfy the court's order
  • Move an underlying proceeding along

Civil contempt sanctions often end when the party in contempt complies with the court order or upon the resolution of the underlying case. On the other hand, criminal contempt sentences aim to punish the act of contempt.

The court may order the incarceration of a contemnor in civil contempt, as it does with those charged with criminal contempt. However, unlike in criminal contempt, in general contemnors in civil contempt cases are not given the same constitutional rights guaranteed to criminal defendants.

For instance, the court will notify those held in civil contempt of the sanctions and allow them to be heard, but they aren't guaranteed a jury trial. In addition, proving civil contempt proceedings doesn't require the burden of proof to be beyond a reasonable doubt. Criminal contempt charges must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Criminal contempt involves specified penalties, such as jail time or a fine. In contrast, civil contempt sanctions can be more indefinite, lasting until the resolution of the underlying case. The party in the civil contempt hearing must comply with the court order.

Direct and Indirect Contempt

There are two types of contempt of court. It can either be direct or indirect contempt.

Direct contempt occurs in the court's presence, perhaps during a court proceeding.

Indirect contempt occurs outside the presence of the court.

Indirect civil contempt often occurs with greater frequency. Examples can include a party ordered by the court to turn over financial records within thirty days but refusing to do so, or a party court-ordered to pay for child support but failing to do so. Indirect contempt is sometimes called constructive or consequential contempt.


Civil contempt of court refers to behavior that 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. 

In general, sanction for civil contempt ends when the party in contempt complies with the court order. It also ends upon the resolution of the underlying case. Civil contempt can result in punishment, either jail time, a fine, or both.

Seek Expert Legal Advice

Civil contempt cases can become complicated. Going through it alone can be challenging and overwhelming, especially if you do not have a legal background. It's important to remember that you can always seek legal advice by contacting a civil rights attorney near you to protect yourself from a civil rights attorney. 

civil rights attorney can give you guidance and representation to help you overcome these court charges. You do not have to navigate this situation alone. Consider seeking help from a legal expert.

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