Going to court can be an intimidating experience for many people. Unless you work in the legal profession, going to court can feel like a completely alien experience. There is a definite order to how things operate in court that would seem silly in any other context.
So why do people get anxious when they go to court? One reason probably is the immense power and authority bestowed on our courts. Without such power, why would anyone listen to what someone in a funny black robe and a wooden hammer have to say? If people did not respect the court’s authority, there would be little reason to do so.
Some say that it is better to be respected than feared—or vice versa, depending on who you ask. However, there is a thin line between respect and fear. But for the fear of going to jail, some people probably would not respect judges and the courts.
The thin line between fear and respect is part of how we maintain order and civility in society. It is partly why people take the court’s decrees so solemnly, including criminal sentences, damages verdicts, and court orders like those issued in a divorce case.
This blog examines an important tool designed to enforce court orders in divorce cases by ensuring that people respect the courts and fear the consequences of disobeying its orders: contempt of court.
What Is Contempt of Court?
To help ensure that people respect the court’s legal authority, courts are empowered to hold those who blatantly disrespect the power and decorum of the court in “contempt of court.” This allows the court to take coercive and sometimes punitive measures to vindicate its authority in the eyes of the public.
When someone disobeys or otherwise disrespects the court, a judge can exercise his or her power to compel someone into complying with its orders. For example, if someone has missed three-months’ worth of child support payments, violating the terms of a valid child support order, the court can hold that person in contempt and coerce them into honoring their obligations by imposing additional fees and even ordering jail time.
When the purpose of throwing someone in jail for contempt of court is to motivate future compliance with its orders, it is considered to be “civil contempt.” Although jail is generally reserved for criminals and criminal suspects, those who disobey the terms of a valid court order—such as those for divorce, alimony, and child custody and support—may also face jail time without being a criminal or criminal suspect.
For instance, if someone missed several family support payments, the court can hold them in contempt and imprison them. However, a court who simply wishes to coerce the contemnor into compliance will set them free once they satisfy their obligations or promise to do so.
Conceivably, a person may be thrown in jail for contempt and released after one hour in a civil contempt case. Because jail terms in civil contempt cases are not only undefined but also contingent on the contemnor’s compliance or promise to comply, it is not considered to be a situation requiring the constitutional protections afforded to criminal defendants.
While the purpose underlying a civil contempt case is coercive in nature, the purpose of a “criminal contempt” situation is punitive in nature. Criminal contempt is appropriate in cases where the court seeks to punish the contemnor for violating its authority.
Unlike civil contempt cases, a person can be jailed for a definite and longer jail term. The contemnor does not have any say in how long their jail sentence will be. That is because the goal of the court is not to coerce the contemnor into compliance, but to punish them for past noncompliance.
Because the freedom of a person is definitely threatened in criminal contempt cases, the rights and privileges afforded to criminal defendants under the constitution apply to criminal contempt cases. This
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