Contempt of court is a charge that can be laid against someone for interrupting the process of justice in a court of law. A charge of contempt, if proved, can result in fines and jail time. Many people are familiar with the concept, since it tends to come up in courtroom dramas.
There are several different forms of contempt. In all cases, they are rooted in the idea that a courtroom and its officers demand respect, both out of common decency and because a court acts as a legal authority. Failure to respect the court can compromise the course of justice, potentially causing a mistrial or compromising the integrity of a trial. As a result, this charge is treated very seriously.
Civil contempt of court involves a failure to obey an order from a court, and it can typically be purged by obeying the order. For example, someone may speak out of turn in a courtroom during trial proceedings, disrespecting the basic rules of the courtroom. The judge can indicate that he or she will find the speaker in contempt unless the speaker sits down and remains silent until it is appropriate to talk. Alternately, a witness could fail to answer a question, in which case the judge will instruct him or her to answer or be held in contempt.
Criminal contempt of court actually hinders the operations of the court. Examples of this include a failure to produce evidence when subpoenaed, or threats to the judge, jury, or lawyers. Someone who yells at the judge, for example, could find him or herself facing this charge.
Contempt of court is also broken up into direct contempt, which takes place in front of a judge, and indirect contempt. In order to prove a charge, it must be proved that the contemnor was aware of the court order or rule that was violated, that he or she was able to comply with the order, and that the person failed to do so. If proved, the sentence for contempt varies, depending on the severity of the crime.
As a general rule, individuals will not be at risk of being charged with contempt if they behave courteously in a courtroom and comply with all orders from court officials. People do not need to be afraid of court officials, but it is a very good idea to be respectful, treating them as they would wish to be treated. Anyone who is unclear on a point of court etiquette can ask a bailiff for assistance.