Contempt of Court

A person showing contempt is one who views another person, entity, or situation with disdain or scorn, or who treats people with dishonor, or considers them disgraceful. Contempt of court involves an individual showing a lack of respect for the court, or for the rules and procedures of the court, or who defies the court’s authority. To explore this concept, consider the following contempt of court definition.

Definition of Contempt of Court


  1. Open disrespect for the court, or willful disobedience of rules or orders of the court.


1350-1400        Middle English < Latin contemptus (a slighting)

Categories of Contempt

Contempt of court refers to any behavior of an individual that defies or opposes the authority or dignity of the court. Contempt of court charges may be leveled against any party to a court proceeding, their lawyers, witnesses, jurors, court officers or personnel, and even non-involved individuals, such as protesters outside a trial. Contempt charges may be civil or criminal, and the court has a great deal of leeway in charging people with contempt.

Acts of contempt may generally be divided into certain categories of contempt:

  1. Criminal Contempt: being rude or disrespectful to court proceedings, the judge, or attorneys in the proceedings, or causing some type of disturbance in the courtroom. This type of behavior usually garners a warning by the judge before contempt charges are made.
  2. Civil Contempt: willfully or purposely failing to obey an order of the court. This often involves refusal to pay child support, failing to abide by a child custody order, refusing to hand over property when ordered by the court, or failing to show up for a hearing in court.
  3. Direct Contempt: an action taken in the presence of the court, which is intended to cause embarrassment or show disrespect for the court. Direct contempt may include the refusal by a witness under oath to answer questions of the judge or an attorney, or shouting in the courtroom .
  4. Indirect Contempt: actions taken away from the court, which are intended to mock, degrade, or obstruct the court or court proceedings. Attempting to bribe an attorney or witness, or attempting to sway members of the jury are considered indirect acts of indirect contempt. In addition, publishing or handing out flyers intended to cause disrespect for the court may be considered an act of indirect contempt.

Because judges have discretion over when an individual should be charged with contempt, such actions as filing large numbers of frivolous lawsuits may result in charges of contempt, as it hinders the court’s ability to fairly and efficiently administer justice to all in its jurisdiction.

Contempt of Court Penalties

When a court cites someone for contempt, the punishment could range from a fine to jail time. Because the judge has complete discretion in controlling the courtroom, and in enforcing orders of the court, contempt of court citations cannot generally be appealed. While fines imposed for contempt of court go to the court, the judge may also order the individual to pay the opposing party’s attorney’s fees for any work required because of the contempt, so it can be a costly mistake.

What is a Contempt of Court Warrant

When an individual commits contempt of court for such things as failing to pay a traffic fine, or failing to appear at a mandatory court hearing, the judge may issue a contempt of court warrant, also referred to as a “bench warrant.” This contempt of court warrant authorizes law enforcement officers to arrest the individual if he is located. A bench warrant differs from an arrest warrant in that arrest warrants are issued when someone is suspected of having committed a crime. Bench warrants are issued for individuals who have committed an offense or insult to the court. Arrest warrants are issued in criminal cases, but a contempt of court warrant may be issued in both civil and criminal cases.

Imprisonment for Contempt of Court

In the event an individual is charged with criminal contempt, the contemptuous act must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Contempt of court penalties imposed for criminal contempt, whether a fine or imprisonment, is enforced unconditionally.

Even in cases of civil contempt, jail time is sometimes threatened, though if imposed it is usually brief. In fact, jail time usually ends when the individual complies with the judge’s order. In this situation, the jailed individual is usually placed in the custody of the local sheriff or other court officer and, because he is said to “hold the keys to his own cell,” due process of law is not necessary.

Ability to Comply

Jail time sanctions may only be imposed for civil contempt if the individual actually has the ability to comply with the court’s order, yet has failed to do so. For example, Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders exist in John and Suzy’s divorce prohibiting either party from selling or getting rid of any marital assets until after the divorce has been finalized. During a hearing, the judge learns that John has removed a pricey piece of art from the couple’s storage container. The judge orders John to return the art, but John does not have the ability to comply because it has been sold to a stranger. The court cannot order John jailed until he complies with the court’s order, as compliance is impossible. The court could level other sanctions against John, however.

Common Actions that Lead to Contempt of Court

Citations for contempt are most commonly levied for violations of existing court orders. In civil and family law, some actions that would be in contempt of court may include:

  • Failure or refusal to make court-ordered child or spousal support payments, or failure to pay the full amount ordered on time.
  • Failure to abide by the Marital Settlement Agreement or divorce decree, refusing to return specified property, or taking away property not awarded to that party.
  • Failure to comply with the terms of a court ordered parenting plan or child visitation order, such as returning the children late, or failing to return them at all, or failing to allow the other parent visitation as ordered.
  • Failure or refusal to return property ordered to be returned in a judgment on a civil lawsuit.
  • Violating a no-contact or protective order.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders – standard, automatic orders that go into effect on filing for divorce, which forbid the parties from removing the children to another location, disposing of marital assets, or creating debt by offering marital assets as collateral.
  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Judgment – A formal decision made by a court in a lawsuit.
  • Marital Assets – All property, financial assets, and debt acquired by the couple during the course of the marriage, regardless of who holds title to it.
  • Marital Settlement Agreement – A written agreement setting forth terms for a divorce agreed to by the couple, covering such issues as child custody and support, spousal support, division of property and debt, and other relevant issues.
  • No Contact Order – A court order prohibiting verbal, physical, and written contact with an other person or entity.
  • Protective Order – An order issued by the court intended to protect an individual from harm or harassment.