It's a familiar scene on TV courtroom dramas: an angry, grieving parent can't stop himself from shouting obscenities at the monster who took his child's life. In response, the judge bangs her gavel repeatedly and says something like, “One more outburst like that and I'll hold you in contempt of court!”
What is contempt of court, exactly? What about civil matters? Can someone be found in contempt of court in, for example, a family law case concerning the custody of a minor? Indeed, they can. Let's take a closer look at the legal definition of contempt and how it relates to custody law.
First Things First: The Definition of Contempt
According to Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute, “contempt of court” is simply the failure to obey any court order. It also describes any behavior, as in the fictional example above, that obstructs the process of justice.
There are two major types of contempt, direct and indirect. The former, direct contempt, takes place in a courtroom. It is disruptive behavior such as swearing at the judge, taking a swing at a defendant, or otherwise acting in a fashion that interrupts the proceedings at hand.
Indirect contempt occurs outside of the court itself. It is a failure to comply with a judgment, a court order, the terms of probation, or other requirement or request made by the court.
Child Custody Agreements and Contempt of Court
Some divorced parents can put aside their differences and make decisions in their children's best interests. Unfortunately, in many cases, the amount of acrimony and ill will render this impossible without external assistance. Custody orders are intended to ensure the safety and well-being of the children and establish an equitable agreement between the parents.
The most common court orders in such cases include:
- Custody itself; where the child(ren) will live
- Visitation schedules for non-custodial parents
- Child support
- Medical and insurance issues
If one of the parties fails to follow through with these court orders, a motion for contempt may be filed by the other parent.
What Happens Next
A motion for contempt, in essence, requests punishment for a parent who isn't abiding by court orders. While it's not a criminal proceeding, the court will hold a hearing to establish the validity of the contempt claim. The parent in question will have a chance to explain their actions and why they disregarded court orders. If they are found to have flouted or ignored directives from the court, they may face fines, attorney's fees, and in extreme cases, even jail time. When it comes to child support payments, there are additional penalties and enforcement methods, such as income withholding.
There is another, more significant consequence of being found in contempt, however. The court may reconsider the current custody agreement in light of the contempt judgment. A parent who violates court orders is much less likely to be viewed favorably by a family law judge.
Is an Attorney Necessary?
It is allowable and technically possible for an individual parent to file a motion for contempt on their own. However, it's not advisable. Legal proceedings like contempt hearings are complicated and influenced by many factors. Given that the well-being of your children is riding on this matter, it makes sense to secure the services of a qualified family law attorney. The skilled family lawyers at Caulder & Valentine have helped hundreds of families near the Shelby or Gastonia areas of North Carolina; give us a call at 704-470-2440 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.