What is Contempt of Court?

Contempt of court is the offence of being defiant or disrespectful to the court of law. Being impolite to legal authorities in the courtroom, or rebelliously failing to follow a court order may draw Contempt of Court proceedings. A judge can levy sanctions such as a penalty or prison for someone found guilty of contempt of court. This was in news regarding comments made on social media against the CJI by Prashant Bhushan for which he faced criminal contempt of court. There are different aspects to this debate over contempt of court.

While several countries have termed such laws as obsolete and archaic, the large number of contempt cases in Indian courts and the need to insulate and safeguard the judiciary are the reasons in favor of contempt laws. In the age of social media, the balance between freedom of speech and anything that ‘scandalizes’ the court has to be revisited. The Supreme Court and the High Court’s derive their power from the constitution of India while the procedure is outlined in the Contempt of Court, Act, 1971.

The Law Commission has recommended that it should be restricted only to civil contempt. Definition of Contempt of Court Contempt of court often referred to simply as “contempt”, is the offence of being disobedient to or disrespectful toward a court of law and its officers in the form of behavior that opposes or defies the authority, justice and dignity of the court. A similar attitude towards a legislative body is termed contempt of Parliament.

There are broadly two categories of contempt:

  • Being disrespectful to legal authorities in the courtroom.
  • Willfully failing to obey a court order. When a court decides that an action constitutes contempt of court, it can issue an order that in the context of a court trial or hearing declares a person or organization to have disobeyed or been disrespectful of the court’s authority, called “found” or “held” in contempt. That is the judge’s strongest power to impose sanctions for acts that disrupt the court’s normal process. Contempt proceedings are especially used to enforce equitable remedies, such as injunctions.
    • In some jurisdictions, the refusal to respond to a subpoena, to testify, to fulfil the obligations of a juror, or to provide certain information can constitute contempt of the court. What is the punishment for Contempt of Court? A finding of being in contempt of court may result from a failure to obey a lawful order of a court, showing disrespect for the judge, disruption of the proceedings through poor behaviour, or publication of material or non-disclosure of material, which in doing so is deemed likely to jeopardize a fair trial. A judge may impose sanctions such as a fine or jail for someone found guilty of contempt of court, which makes contempt of court a process crime. Judges in common law systems usually have more extensive power to declare someone in contempt than judges in civil law systems.
Image – Comply Book

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.

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *