contempt of court, civil

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Civil contempt of court refers to disobedience of an order of the court which carries quasi-criminal penalties rather than direct criminal penalties. The goal of civil contempt of court charges is to persuade the party subject to the charges to comply with the court order(s). Unlike other civil penalties, however, civil contempt of court can result in jail time. 

For example, a party who refuses to turn over documents requested during discovery may find themselves charged with civil contempt of court. As a result of this charge, the party refusing to turn over documents may find themselves subject to a fine and/or temporarily imprisoned. 

Civil contempt of court justifies the possibility of jail time for otherwise entirely civil matters because “the key to the cell is in the contemnor’s own pocket.” In other words, the contemnor is punished for only so long as they refuse to perform the action required of them by the court. Once the contemnor performs that action, they will immediately be released from whatever sanction the court has imposed.

Like all contempt charges, civil contempt of court is split between direct and indirect contempt.

  • Direct contempt occurs directly within the view of the court, while indirect contempt occurs outside of the courtroom.
  • Civil direct contempt of court is used to maintain order during court proceedings, whereas civil indirect contempt is used to motivate compliance with a court order like probation terms.

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]