Contempt Law & Legal Definition


In legal terminology, contempt refers to any willful disobedience to, or disregard of, a court order or any misconduct in the presence of a court; action that interferes with a judge's ability to administer justice or that insults the dignity of the court. There are both civil and criminal contempts and the line distinguishing the two often blurs. The defiant person is called the contemnor. In some cases, such as contempt for not obeying a child support order, paying the amount owed is the solution to avoid further penalties, and the payment is referred to as "purging the contempt."

There are essentially two types of contempt: a) disrespect to the decorum of the court (being rude, disrespectful to the judge or other attorneys or causing a disturbance in the courtroom, particularly after being warned by the judge) and b) willful failure to obey an order of the court. Failure to make a court-ordered payment, such as alimony, may result in a finding of contempt. The court's power to punish for contempt includes fines and/or jail time. Since the judge has discretion to control the courtroom, contempt citations are generally not appealable unless the amount of fine or jail time is excessive.

"Criminal contempt" involves the obstruction of justice, such as threatening a judge or witness or disobeying an order to produce evidence. Criminal contempt occurs when the contemnor actually interferes with the ability of the court to function properly - for example, by yelling at the judge. This is also called direct contempt because it occurs directly in front of the judge. A criminal contemnor may be fined, jailed or both as punishment for his act.

Civil contempt occurs when the contemnor willfully disobeys a court order. This is also called indirect contempt because it occurs outside of the judge's presence and evidence must be presented to prove the contempt. The theory behind the punishment is to coerce the contemnor into obeying the court, not to punish him, and the contemnor will be released from jail just as soon as he complies with the court order. In family law, civil contempt may be a method of enforcing alimony, child support, custody and visitation orders which have been violated.