What does it mean to be held in contempt by the Court?

You will commonly hear lawyers tell their clients that if they do not follow a Court Order or Judgment, they could be held in contempt of Court.  But what does that really mean?

Broadly, contempt of court is some kind of offense against the authority of the court system. There are two basic kinds of contempt: civil and criminal.

Civil contempt is the most common kind of contempt and is the only type of contempt in domestic court.  It consists of willfully violating a court order—usually, to pay money. But civil contempt can also be based on orders to appear in court, to turn over documents, or to testify.

Debtor’s prisons were abolished long ago, so a person can’t go to jail just for owing a debt. But they can go to jail if they are in contempt of court for disobeying a court order. Jail is the extreme sanction for contempt of court, and is usually imposed in collection cases only if they refuse to pay money they clearly have.

A Rule to Show Cause is how contempt proceedings start. A “Rule” is a particular type of court order. It requires a person to appear and explain—“show cause”—why they shouldn’t be held in contempt of court. It’s an order to appear, so if they don’t, that itself could be contempt of court.

Not every violation of a court order is contempt of court—it has to be willful. The key to willfulness is whether they could have complied with the court order. If a person couldn’t pay, the failure to pay wasn’t willful, and it’s not contempt.

At a Rule to Show Cause hearing, usually a party tries to explain why he/she could not pay; sometimes by showing evidence of unemployment or inability to pay based on minimal pay and high expenses.  The burden is on the party who may be held in contempt to show the Judge why they should not be.

Even if a person is held in contempt of court because they could have paid, they won’t automatically go to jail. Incarceration is usually a last resort, after other methods of getting the person to pay have failed. And, they can’t be jailed unless they “have the keys to their own cell,” meaning they are able to pay their own way out of jail.

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