Civil contempt occurs when any party, called the “contemnor,” willfully disobeys a court order. A contemnor does not have to be a party to a case, rather they can simply disobey an order to appear as a witness and be held in contempt. Penalties vary based on the severity of the contempt, but generally the penalties are geared simply toward coercing the party to obey the court’s order. Civil contempt is differentiated from criminal contempt, which occurs when the contemnor’s actions directly prevent the court from properly functioning.
In order to be found in civil contempt of court, the contemnor must have acted in a manner inconsistent with a court order. Further, he or she must have known about the order, been able to comply, and refused to comply with the order. Generally, anyone to be charged with contempt will be notified of such a charge and depending on the circumstances will have a chance to comply with the order to wipe out the charges. Though, if the circumstances dictate a penalty regardless of immediate compliance, the alleged contemnor may have the right to a hearing at which he or she may present evidence in rebuttal of the charge.
The penalties levied for civil contempt vary based on the jurisdiction and the circumstances surrounding the contempt. Penalties may include fines, jail time, or both. Typically, the penalties are not levied with the purpose of punishing the contemnor. Rather, they are levied to coerce the contemnor to act in accordance to the order. Therefore, the penalties for this charge can usually be avoided simply by complying with the order.
One of the most common examples of civil contempt occurs in child custody cases. If one of the parties does not fulfill their duties mandated under a court’s decree, for instance by not paying the appropriate amount of child support due, the opposing party may move to hold him or her in contempt of court. In this instance, the contemnor may be held in contempt until he or she makes appropriate payments.
Civil contempt is much different from criminal contempt, in which the contemnor directly interferes with the basic function of the court. For example, if a criminal defendant were to fight one of the court’s officers while being led to the courtroom, he or she could be held in criminal contempt. Any contemnor held in criminal contempt of court will generally face jail time whether or not he or she agrees to comply with the court’s instruction after being charged.