In Law, what are Sanctions?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 March 2020
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Sanctions are penalties which are imposed by law when someone violates the law or court rules, or is ruled to be behaving in contempt of court. Somewhat curiously, the term “sanction” can also have the opposite meaning; rather than being a punishment intended to deter an activity, it may be a form of approval which indicates that an activity is acceptable. For example, if someone says “the law sanctioned his activities at the accident site,” she or he may mean “the law permitted his activities at the accident site.” Usually the intended meaning of this word is clear from the context.

In criminal law, sanctions are meant to serve as a disincentive for criminal activity, by providing clear consequences for engaging in criminal behavior. Examples of sanctions can include prison sentences mandated for people convicted of engaging in certain activities, along with fines and other punishments like community service which may be imposed by the court.

In civil law, sanctions are most commonly used against lawyers or parties to a case when they abuse the judicial system or act inappropriately. For example, lawyers and parties to a case can be sanctioned for failing to observe proper decorum in the court, for filing frivolous suits, or for acting in contempt of court. These sanctions can include fines and other penalties which the judge may set out, and some judges have devised especially creative sanctions to impose order in their courtrooms.


Sanctions in these cases may include things like fines paid to the other party to compensate for wasted time. For example, if a lawyer fails to have a witness ready at the appointed date and time, the judge may impose sanctions which the lawyer pays to opposing counsel in recognition of the fact that his or her time was wasted by showing up in court when there was no witness to hear.

Bar associations can also impose sanctions on their members. If a bar association believes that a lawyer has behaved unprofessionally, she or he can be sanctioned. A license to practice law may be suspended temporarily, for a set period, or permanently, for example, and the bar can also impose fines. Once a lawyer has been sanctioned by the bar association, a note goes on the lawyer's permanent record, and will show up when clients or other lawyers ask the bar for references and information about the lawyer's standing with the bar.


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Post 5

A large bank filed a lawsuit against me because they didn't have their information straight. This was something they could have discovered if they had simply called me, or written a letter. I am left with the lawsuit which they dismissed after I hired a lawyer and had to pay almost $700. What is my recourse?

Post 4

Help. What is your take on this: "They neglected to file a proof of Claim bifurcating the units. The plan was confirmed and blank is now barred from raising issues regarding prepetition and post petition arrears. As of the date of Trustees last payment, my client was current. She was told payment would not be accepted until all arrears on the apt. were brought current. Again, according to the bankruptcy confirmed plan and all subsequent modifications thereof, my client was current on the day that the trustee received the last payment. Any attempts to collect the arrears pre trustee final payment will result in a motion for sanctions against the client. Help!

Post 3

@ MaPa - The financial sanctions are bad enough, but sometimes a judge can really come up with a cruel punishment if people do not follow the rules in their courtroom. I read last year that a judge in Mississippi threw a lawyer in jail for not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I like the Pledge as much as the next guy, but it's kind of scary that a judge has that kind of power for such a small thing. We have freedom of speech, don't we have the freedom to not speak?

Post 2

I know that a sanction from the bar association can be a really big thing for a lawyer. It goes in their record so that anytime they apply for a job or apply to the bar in another state or whatever, that black mark is there. With so many lawyers on the job already, having a strike against you can be really hard to overcome.

Post 1

I remember watching the O.J. trial and Judge Ito was yelling at the lawyers from both sides of the case for something, and at the end of his lecture he hit them all with a fine and told them "get your checkbooks out", he wanted them to pay right then. I was surprised at the amount of power judges have to do that kind of thing.

I guess economic sanctions make the most sense in a lot of cases, since throwing the lawyers in jail or making them pick up trash on the side of the road or whatever would make the trial take even longer. With the fine, you just pay up and get on with your life.

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