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What Are the Different Types of Contempt of Court?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 17, 2024
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Many organizations and systems around the world demand etiquette and decorum, and legal systems are one such entity. In court proceedings, an individual who disrespects a court’s proceedings or its authority will likely be held in contempt of court. The two main contempt of court charges are direct contempt and indirect contempt. Distinction between the two lies in whether or not an individual halts an in-progress courtroom proceeding with disruptive behavior, meaning behavior which could lead to a charge of criminal contempt. In contrast to the direct approach, indirect contempt occurs when an individual fails to follow a court order. This type of contempt is less likely to result in criminal charges, but rather will be viewed as civil contempt.

In numerous regions, a charge of contempt of court must be proven. The defendant, also known as a contemner, must have had knowledge of the violated court rule. Further, he or she must have willfully disregarded said rule. Punishments for a guilty finding may range from fines to short prison sentences.

A judge may levy a charge either of direct contempt or indirect contempt. The former type involves violations which actually occur in the courtroom or in front of a judge. In these cases, the charge is immediate and the judge informs the individual of the alleged offense. An example would be a defendant or spectator interrupting a court proceeding with an outburst. Abusive language against a judge or another employee of the court is another example.

Indirect contempt, on the other hand, occurs when an individual violates a court’s order outside of the courtroom. Perhaps the most common form of this type of contempt is a failure to appear in court for a scheduled proceeding. Other examples could include violation of a restraining order or failure to attend required medical or psychological appointments.

Depending on the severity of the offense, an individual may be charged with civil contempt of court or criminal contempt of court. Civil contempt is the typical charge, and any proceeding would thus take place in the civil court system. Requirements for a guilty finding vary by region. In the United States, the accused would be found guilty when a majority of the evidence points to guilt.

Cases of contempt that significantly harm the reputation of the court or one of its employees are viewed with a greater degree of severity. Direct contempt may often be pursued as criminal contempt, since the judge will likely issue a warning and only make a charge after repeated violations. While other regions may differ, in the United States court system a charge of criminal contempt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Jail time is also not uncommon for a guilty verdict.

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