The term “contempt of court” is often thrown around on legal TV shows and movies, yet the concept has more intricacies than some people may realize. For those going through a divorce in California, it may be helpful to know what contempt of court entails.
“When you’re involved in a family law case, and the other party isn’t following through with his or her court orders, you might want to consider filing for an action for contempt of court,” notes Encinitas divorce attorney John Griffith. “This way, we can ensure that all parties are playing by the rules.”
What Is Contempt of Court?
Basically, contempt of court is anything deemed disrespectful or disorderly in a courtroom proceeding. It’s one tool a judge can use to enforce the authority of the court. This term is explained in more detail under California Penal Code Section 166, wherein the following behaviors are considered contemptuous:
- Becoming loud, belligerent, or unruly in court
- Refusing to follow the judge’s requests, including being sworn in as a witness
- Disobeying a court order willfully
- Providing false testimony during any court proceedings
Anyone can be held in contempt of court: attorneys, witnesses, defendants, plaintiffs, or onlookers causing a disturbance. Those found by a judge to in contempt of court are subject to both county jail time and a fine, the lengths and amounts vary by circumstance.
Filing for Contempt of Court
If a spouse refuses to pay court-ordered spousal or child support during a divorce case, he or she may be in contempt of court. Other eligible offenses could be not adhering to a restraining order, refusing to relinquish property or funds, failure to pay attorney fees, or disobeying any other court order during the divorce proceedings.
In California, the method of filing for action for contempt of court generally follows this process:
- Filing an affidavit: The spouse wishing to pursue contempt of court action must file an affidavit with the court. In family law cases, the person filing must state the type of order being violated, the date the initial order was enforced, how it was violated, and when the violation happened.
- Notifying the citee of the charge: The spouse against whom the order is being filed is called the “citee,” and must be served a formal notification of the time and place of the court hearing on the charge.
- Proving the other party’s willful violation of court order: The burden of proof here lies with the filer, who must show that the citee knew about the court order in question, had the ability to follow it, and then willfully violated the order.
Rights and Defenses against Those Found in Contempt of Court
Those who have been found in contempt of court have the following rights:
- The right to be formally notified of the charges against him/her
- The right to an attorney
- The right to a hearing
- The right to be discharged if the filer cannot provide adequate proof that any attempt of court actually occurred
After these initial steps have been taken, the citee may possibly defend him or herself using the following arguments:
- The citee did not act willfully and did not intend to be in contempt of the order.
- The citee did not know about the order in the first place.
- The citee did not have the ability to follow the order.
In cases like these, it’s crucial to find an experienced family attorney who can help during the entire process. Due to the intricate nature of contempt of court rulings, it’s essential to have adequate legal representation in these cases.
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