"What is contempt of court?"

Recently, someone asked me to explain "contempt of court."  Here you go.

brendawaugh courthouse

Contempt of court occurs when a court issues an order requiring that a person (or company) do something, and that person disobeys the court order.  The injured or aggrieved party requests that the court find that person in contempt and take action to ensure compliance with the order. In other words, once the court issues a ruling, so long as that ruling is in effect, anyone who is ordered to do something in the order must do it, or the court may find them in contempt.

What happens when someone violates the terms of a court order?   The person who is aggrieved by the failure to follow the order asks the judge to find the offender in contempt.   Once that happens, at least in West Virginia, the court may find the offender in civil or criminal contempt or may find that he or she did not act in contempt.

jail for contempt of court

If the court find the offender is acting in civil contempt, the court may order that the offender be jailed until the person does what they were ordered to do.  In other words the person is confined until that person purges themselves from contempt.  

When the court finds that the individual is acting in criminal contempt, the person is provided a trial and if convicted,  sentenced for violating the court order.  One situation that many of my readers are familiar with involved a local attorney who violated a court order that required her to respond to certain subpoenas.  She was convicted and incarcerated for her failure to comply with the court order. 

During my career,  I petitioned a court to find a party in contempt and defended parties who were accused of contempt of court.  Most often they involved cases when a court ordered a custody schedule and one parent violated the terms of the order.  Those situations usually involved civil contempt, and once the parents appeared in court and reviewed the order with the court, they complied with the order.  Contempt in custody cases occurs with such frequency that the forms to request that a person be found in contempt are provided for free for pro se litigants in West Virginia by the Supreme Court and the District of Columbia bar. 

I have represented parties in a few situations that  involved government actions.  In one situation I petitioned the court  to hold a state agency in contempt when they had taken custody of hundreds of children through abuse and neglect cases and not made the proper effort to find the children a permanent home, in violation of a court order.  

The ability for a court to have their orders respected is critical to our civil society.  When parties are unable to create a resolution to their conflict and have to rely on a court to do so, the parties must be confident that the other party will obey the provisions of the order, or face serious consequences.  Contempt of court is one way that our constitutional democracy maintains checks and balances. The legislative branch enacts laws (and creates constitutional amendments).  They create the law, such as the laws that provide for child custody schedules.   When there is confusion about what the law or the Constitution says or how a law applies, the judicial branch, the judge makes that determination and enters it into a binding order.  Then the executive branch, which includes law enforcement, executes the order if necessary, and the person is placed into state custody for the violation of the order.  

Here are a few FAQs about “contempt of court”.

  • The judge’s order says that I have to permit my former spouse to see my child every other weekend.  My child doesn’t want to go.  Do I have to send him or her?

Yes!  Until a court enters an order modifying it, you are required to follow it.  If you don’t, you may be found in contempt.  Additionally, you may want to read one of my earlier posts about child’s preference in custody before making decisions based only on your child’s preference.

  • Has a court every found that government official acted in contempt?

Yes, many times.  In one situation, Sheriff Joe Arpiao was found to be in civil contempt.  A Federal Court found that his office had violated several provisions of the court order by failing to turn over evidence as well as other violations.     A criminal contempt proceeding is still pending.

  • Do I have to have an attorney to represent me if I’m charged with contempt?

Since your case may have criminal consequences, it is best to have an attorney in any petition for contempt.  If the case involves criminal contempt and you cannot afford an attorney, you should request that the court appoints one for you.

  • My spouse never pays support?  How do I file contempt against him or her? 

You can file for contempt of the court order on your own in many locations, without an attorney.  (For forms in W.Va. click here).  However, you may be able to have a lawyer paid for by the state through the child support collection office.  Click your state for information on your local office: West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, District of Columbia

If you have further questions about contempt in a family case, you may want to attend a free informational session in one of our offices.  If you have other questions about contempt, contact me, and I will be happy to review them.