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What You Need to Know About the Two Types of Contempt Available to You?

In any given criminal or civil case, the system properly functions only if the litigants follow the judge’s court orders. If this were not the case, some litigants could or would just ignore a judge’s order and/or disrespect the sanctity of the courtroom and the judge who serves in it for the community at large. Without the “power” of the court and judge, the last line for parties to lawfully settle their disputes, our way of life would slip into chaos. Nevertheless, a small minority of litigants’ behavior (e.g., action or inaction), particularly those in highly contested domestic cases, is legally unacceptable. This may invoke the court’s contempt powers.  This blog addresses what you need to know about contempt of court. 

The word contempt is thrown around by litigants and lawyers in reference to questionable-to-outrageous behaviors, again particularly in domestic cases, both inside and outside the courtroom.  However, this does not mean such rises to the level of contempt. Because domestic law embraces many areas of law, including divorce, paternity, Children in Need of Services, there are many statutes providing trial courts and their judges with contempt powers.  Furthermore, the judges and their courts have the inherent power to enforce their orders and maintain decorum in the courtroom.

At times, there is confusion between attorneys and litigants as to the types of contempt and differences between them.  Generally, “contempt of court” involves disobedience of a court that undermines the court’s authority, justice, and dignity. There are two (2) types of contempt: indirect contempt and direct contempt.  Indirect contempt of court is willful behavior failure to follow or abide by a court’s order.  For instance, if a party fails to pay child support for two (2) weeks, a party (the party not receiving the child support) may file a Petition for Contempt.  

For the court to find a party in contempt, there must be a hearing where the judge finds the party “willfully” failed to pay child support.  It may seem obvious that not paying a weekly child support payment would be found to be “willfully” not paying as ordered. However, assume the parent paying support is injured in a car crash and hospitalized during this two-week period of time. Depending on facts (such as if there is an income withholding order in place), it may be difficult to find that the failure to pay support was willful. 

 On the other hand, if the litigants get into an argument over parenting time and the support-paying parent paying child withholds payment of support because he or she is angry, and this is established in and reflected by the evidence, it is likely the court will find that parent in (indirect) contempt.   This is indirect of the court and how the Indiana trial courts and their judges force compliance with their orders.  Generally, indirect contempt of court is what a party is referring to when he or she (or it) is discussing contempt of court in most all cases, including those arising in domestic courts.  

 In most domestic cases, a court’s order finding contempt (which can only occur after a required hearing) is indirect contempt of court—mostly for failing to follow a specific court order.  With a finding of (indirect) contempt of court, the court in extreme cases may order the party to comply or be jail pending compliance. Where a party is jailed for indirect contempt of court, he or she may pay the amount owed or otherwise follow the court’s order (he or she is in contempt of) and be released; this is known as a “purge bond”, as the contemnor has purged him or herself of the contempt. This is always because civil contempt is coercive or remedial in nature. Exactly what does that mean?  Simple. Civil contempt, taking the example noted on non-payment of child support, forces or coerces the contemnor to make the payment of child support to remediate the contempt—willful non-payment of child support—purges the contemnor of the contempt.

That said, the contempt finding does not go away and that order finding a party in contempt stays a part of the court’s record. This may give the party less room to argue against a contempt finding in a subsequent contempt proceeding.  No party should ever want to be found in contempt, even if they prove a point. 

Such noted, there are many other statutory and inherent powers a court may exercise related to a contempt finding, such as ordering the party found in contempt to pay the legal fees of the opposing party for having to file and litigate a contempt petition. Typically, each contempt finding results in harsher remedial order and being jailed typically is not the first contempt sanction a court will impose, but it could be . . . .  

In addition, and as previously noted, in domestic law, there are several statutes that embody and codify this inherent power of  a trial court to find contempt, which provide a wide  array of actions/sanctions a court make with a contempt finding, such as performance of community service without compensation. As noted, there must be evidence to establish “willful” behavior (e.g., non-compliance), but this is left to the sound discretion of the trial court.   For this reason, the Court of Appeals will only reverse a contempt finding if it is against the logic and effect of the evidence before it or is contrary to law.

Many lawyers may practice their entire careers and not handle a direct contempt of court action. This is not necessarily the case in domestic law, and it is more common.   Criminal or direct contempt is an act directed against the authority of the court that obstructs the administration of justice and tends to bring the court into disrepute; thus, a criminal contempt sanction is punitive in nature because its purpose is to vindicate the authority of the court, and it benefits the state rather than the aggrieved party (such as parent who did not receive child support).  Stated differently, “direct contempt” involves an action in the presence of the court, such that the court has personal knowledge of the matter.   An example might be a litigant throwing a chair in the courtroom.  Direct or criminal contempt is punishable by a term of incarceration.

We, the attorneys at Ciyou & Associates, P.C., are well versed in contempt matters, both the prosecution and defense of indirect and direct contempt. We hope this blog on contempt assists you in better understanding this legal tool. If so, it will help you be a more informed litigant and will help you help your counsel because of a more detailed understanding of these legal concepts.  If so, the blog has met its educational goals. This blog is written for general informational purposes. It is not intended to be relied upon in any case. It is also not legal advice. It is an advertisement.

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