lady justice

Ryan was still recovering from the bitter divorce that saw him losing almost half of the company he sacrificed so much, including his marriage, to build. But he has just been charged with contempt of court for failing to pay child support. His world was crashing down in all directions, and now this! 

How do you fall into contempt of court? Can it take you to prison?

What Is Contempt of Court?

Contempt of court occurs when a person or entity disobeys a court order, insults, disrespects or acts in a way that denigrates the dignity or authority of the court. Any action that prevents the court from delivering justice can make the judge hold you in contempt. Contempt of court is the consequence of not following laid down procedures in the judicial system. A person held in contempt of court is called a contemnor.

Generally, judges are empowered to hold someone in contempt based on their conduct during the presence of the court or outside of the court premises. Apart from the judge, every other person involved in a case can be held in contempt including:

  • The litigating parties in a case
  • Witnesses
  • Lawyers
  • Jurors
  • Court staff and officers, and
  • Public officials and security personnel who have something to do with the case. 

Types of Contempt

There are two types of contempt including:

  1. Criminal Contempt 
  2. Civil Contempt

Criminal Contempt

Criminal contempt of court occurs when a person willfully acts in an unacceptable way in court. Actions such as yelling at the judge, disrupting court proceedings, shouting or threatening the other party in a case, or refusing to testify can result in criminal contempt of court. The majority of contempt of court cases that make the headlines fall under the criminal contempt category.

Criminal contempt of court usually attract punishments which are meant to serve as a deterrent to others. An individual who commits a criminal contempt may be asked to pay a fine or go to jail, depending on the severity of the contempt. 

An individual held in criminal contempt of court will still serve the punitive measures of the court regardless of the outcome of the underlying case. In essence, criminal contempt results from the actions of an individual during a trial.

Civil Contempt

On the other hand, civil contempt occurs when a person or entity disobeys the decision of the court. It usually occurs when a party in a civil case violates the court order, resulting in losses or damages to another party. This type of contempt is common in family law. 

For example, a divorced person can be held in contempt of court if they fail to pay child support or don’t take the child to their ex-spouse at the time stipulated by the court. However, the contemnor can only be held in contempt of court if the aggrieved party request for the court to do so, unlike criminal contempt where the judge can decide to punish the offender. 

Civil contempt of court is not meant to punish the offender, rather; its purpose is to restore the rights of the aggrieved party. If the contemnor starts complying with the court order, then he/she won’t be in contempt of court, except where the judge decides to extend the sanctions until the resolution of the underlying case. 

Judges use civil contempt to force a contemnor to comply with court decisions regarding child support, alimony, custody, and visitation orders among others. 

Several factors are used to determine whether a person should be held in criminal or civil contempt, but the decision lies in the hands of the judge. 

Differences Between Criminal and Civil Contempt Charges

The major differences between criminal and civil contempt charges have to do with the prosecution and punishments. 

In criminal contempt cases, the contemnor is entitled to full constitutional rights of a criminal defendant. An individual charged with criminal contempt has the right to counsel, defense, and in certain situations, a jury trial as the offense must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Also, criminal contempt cases are tried differently from the underlying case and can continue even after the original case has been resolved. 

On the other hand, aivil contempt doesn’t require proving beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the offender does not have the constitutional rights enjoyed by a person facing criminal contempt charges. He or she may not get a jury trial despite the legislative provisions that the contemnor be given the opportunity to a court hearing. 

The sanctions for criminal contempt are definite; the court either orders the person to pay a fine, serve jail time or both. However, punishments for civil contempt can last for the duration of the underlying case or cease when the person stops violating the court order. 

In both cases, the court can sanction a person held in contempt before delivering its final decision on the case and the same judge who charged a person with contempt could also rule over their contempt cases. 

Direct and Indirect Contempt

Contempt of court can also be either direct or indirect.

Direct contempt occurs when you willfully disobey an order in the presence of the court such as when a person disrupts court proceedings by yelling at the judge or insulting the jurors. Criminal contempt is also direct contempt as the contemnor is actively preventing the court from functioning properly or dishonors the court. 

Indirect contempt happens outside of the courtroom including failure to pay child support, refusing to obey subpoenas, or abusing jurors outside of the court premises. Most indirect contempt is also civil contempt, but it can also be criminal in certain cases. 

Can Contempt Take You to Prison?

Regardless of the type, contempt can send you to jail. While it is more common for criminal contempt cases to end in jail time, civil contemnors can also be fined and/or jailed. 

Typically, the court delivers a punishment it believes is enough to make the contemnor comply with its order. The best you can do is to comply with the court order immediately. Punishment for contempt is not meant to punish the offender, rather; it’s meant to force compliance so that the court can function properly or restore the rights of an aggrieved party.

What Should You Do If Charged with Contempt?

If you are charged with contempt, ensure you comply with the court order immediately. If you were incarcerated for disrupting court proceedings, make sure you start conducting yourself in the best way possible in the presence of the court. And if you refused to pay child support or other violations of a court order, the best you can do is to comply promptly. 

If the case goes to trial, make sure you show up in court. Failure to show up might force the court to issue a warrant for your arrest or post a bond, significantly increasing your troubles. 

Where the contempt is proven, you can either comply with the court order or accept the court’s punishment. However, the best way to save yourself from more sanctions is to obey court orders.