Sanctions are penalties which are imposed by law when someone violates the law or court rules, or is ruled to be behaving in contempt of court. Somewhat curiously, the term “sanction” can also have the opposite meaning; rather than being a punishment intended to deter an activity, it may be a form of approval which indicates that an activity is acceptable. For example, if someone says “the law sanctioned his activities at the accident site,” she or he may mean “the law permitted his activities at the accident site.” Usually the intended meaning of this word is clear from the context.
In criminal law, sanctions are meant to serve as a disincentive for criminal activity, by providing clear consequences for engaging in criminal behavior. Examples of sanctions can include prison sentences mandated for people convicted of engaging in certain activities, along with fines and other punishments like community service which may be imposed by the court.
In civil law, sanctions are most commonly used against lawyers or parties to a case when they abuse the judicial system or act inappropriately. For example, lawyers and parties to a case can be sanctioned for failing to observe proper decorum in the court, for filing frivolous suits, or for acting in contempt of court. These sanctions can include fines and other penalties which the judge may set out, and some judges have devised especially creative sanctions to impose order in their courtrooms.
Sanctions in these cases may include things like fines paid to the other party to compensate for wasted time. For example, if a lawyer fails to have a witness ready at the appointed date and time, the judge may impose sanctions which the lawyer pays to opposing counsel in recognition of the fact that his or her time was wasted by showing up in court when there was no witness to hear.
Bar associations can also impose sanctions on their members. If a bar association believes that a lawyer has behaved unprofessionally, she or he can be sanctioned. A license to practice law may be suspended temporarily, for a set period, or permanently, for example, and the bar can also impose fines. Once a lawyer has been sanctioned by the bar association, a note goes on the lawyer's permanent record, and will show up when clients or other lawyers ask the bar for references and information about the lawyer's standing with the bar.