In all types of court cases, a litigant (party to the lawsuit or criminal case) may be found in contempt of court. They are two types of contempt of court under Indiana law. The first is direct contempt of court, where a party’s action in the courtroom disrupts the court. This is known as direct contempt of court and may subject the litigant to criminal action or incarceration. This not the typical type of contempt that arises in a case.
Indirect contempt is what most Readers may have questions about. This type of contempt involves failure to follow a court’s orders. The failure must be willful and intentional. Thus, inadvertent failure to follow a court’s order (or a situation where it is impossible to follow a court’s order), contempt may not be found by a trial court. Indiana trial courts are fair and do not use this tool lightly.
Nevertheless, in domestic cases in particular, there is a human-nature component to the case and it is easy for a party to fail to do X or Y as it was ordered by a court. If this is a situation you are in, it is important to understand the law and what remedies may be imposed by the trial court. The refusal to follow a court order may be because he or she is hurt or feels like life post divorce is unfair, but ignoring the problem and/or your attorney attempting to address it with you is good way to set yourself up for a “contempt petition” or “contempt citation” as they are often titled.
What happens if you have a contempt petition filed against you? First, it is important to remember that trial courts have vast discretion in domestic cases and a technical “defense” will be unlikely to avoid you being found in contempt. There are several consequences of a contempt finding by a trail court after a hearing.
First, where custody is at issue, this may impair your case objectives in the future as the trial court may view a parent found in contempt as one who is unwilling or unable to follow its orders. Thus, such a finding may have future implications for your case.
Second, under several statutes in both the Paternity Act and Dissolution Act, a trial court may award attorney’s fees associated with the contempt litigation. That is probably the most common sanction.
Third, there are some litigants who intentionally refuse to follow court orders. In these rarer cases, the trial court may order the person incarcerated until they purge themselves of the contempt, such as by paying toward child support the litigant refused to pay. Under this type of contempt, the litigant holds the keys to the jailhouse doors, and upon purging the contempt (i.e., paying the child support) he or she is likely to be released.
While domestic cases usually do not involve the right to counsel, where the court is going to issue an incarceration order, there is the right to counsel.1 Failure to do so makes sanction an abuse of discretion. In all, contempt power is the backbone of Indiana trial courts and a litigant should understand its implications for a (your) case.