Contempt of Court

Contempt of court generally refers to conduct that violates, defies, or disrespects the authority of the court. There are two types of contempt—criminal and civil. Each has its own consequences for violating and there are certain times when one may be more strategic than the other, or may be the proper recourse, in which to pursue.

The most common scenario in family law is where an agreement is reached—either by consent or by a judge’s court order. In the order, there is a provision for the order to be enforced by the powers of contempt. Some time goes by. The parties begin by abiding by the order. Something happens. Someone (or both parties) stop following it. The next thing you know, someone files a motion for contempt. This can be for failing to pay child support, for disallowing visitation of a child for visitation, for failure to pay alimony, for failure to refinance an asset or change titles from one party to the other—for whatever the order calls.

Criminal contempt is governed by N.C.G.S. §5A-11 and is applicable for both a violation of a court order or for displaying disrespect for the court. This is used for punishing conduct that has already occurred. This is a disciplinary concept. A person found in criminal contempt is subject any and/or all of the following:

  1. Censure; and/or
  2. Imprisonment for up to 30 days; and/or
  3. A fine not to exceed $500.00.

Further, according the N.C.G.S. §5A-11, the following are considered criminal contempt:

  1. Willful behavior committed during the sitting of a court and directly tending to interrupt its proceedings.
  2. Willful behavior committed during the sitting of a court in its immediate view and presence and directly tending to impair the respect due its authority.
  3. Willful disobedience of, resistance to, or interference with a court’s lawful process, order, directive, or instruction or its execution.
  4. Willful refusal to be sworn or affirmed as a witness, or, when so sworn or affirmed, willful refusal to answer any legal and proper question when the refusal is not legally justified.
  5. Willful publication of a report of the proceedings in a court that is grossly inaccurate and presents a clear and present danger of imminent and serious threat to the administration of justice, made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false. No person, however, may be punished for publishing a truthful report of proceedings in a court.
  6. Willful or grossly negligent failure by an officer of the court to perform his duties in an official transaction.
  7. Willful or grossly negligent failure to comply with schedules and practices of the court resulting in substantial interference with the business of the court.
  8. Willful refusal to testify or produce other information upon the order of a judge acting pursuant to Article 61 of Chapter 15A, Granting of Immunity to Witnesses.
  9. Willful communication with a juror in an improper attempt to influence his deliberations.
  10. Willful refusal by a defendant to comply with a condition of probation.
  11. Willful refusal to accept post-release supervision or to comply with the terms of post-release supervision by a prisoner whose offense requiring post-release supervision is a reportable conviction subject to the registration requirement of Article 27A of Chapter 14 of the General Statutes.
  12. Any other act or omission specified elsewhere in the General Statutes of North Carolina as grounds for criminal contempt.

Civil contempt is governed by N.C.G.S. §5A-21 and is applicable when a party is intending to compel compliance with a court order. This is used for conduct that is ongoing. Unlike criminal contempt, this aims to restore the rights of a wronged party. Civil contempt sanctions end when the party complies with the court order. A person found in civil contempt can be imprisoned so long as the civil contempt continues, not to exceed 90 days, so long as there are purge provisions in place, meaning the party is given the opportunity to be informed of what he or she can do to get in compliance with the order. For example, if a parent is behind by a certain amount of monthly child support to the other parent, the purge provision would allow that parent a certain amount of time to get up to date and purge him or herself from the civil contempt.

According to N.C.G.S. §5A-21, failure to comply with an order of a court is a continuing civil contempt so long as:

  1. The order remains in force;
  2. The purpose of the order may still be served by compliance with the order;
  3. The noncompliance by the person to whom the order is direct is willful; and
  4. The person to whom the order is directed is able to comply with the order or is able to take reasonable measures that would enable the person to comply with the order.

At Rech Law, P.C., we can help you file or defend a contempt motion in the right manner highlighting the reasons why the court should or should not grant the motion. Particularly in light of the above consequences of a contempt motion, this can be a scary process to otherwise navigate alone.