06 Dec Getting Help with Contempt of Court Family Proceedings in South Carolina
The U.S. Supreme Court has explained that the “obvious truth [is] that the average defendant does not have the professional legal skill to protect himself when brought before a tribunal with power to take his life or liberty.” Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458 (1938).
The Risk of Contempt Makes Representation Key
Those who are represented by attorneys are less likely to commit contempt and are less likely to be sanctioned for failing to meet obligations. Consider the following argument made by amicus brief in one Supreme Court case, Turner v. Rogers:
- Over 98% of parents held in “willful” contempt were not represented by counsel.
- At least 95% of all contemnors were sentenced to jail; the average sentence imposed was three months.
- Over 75% of all contemnors testified that they were presently or previously unemployed or having difficulty finding work.
- Parents who appeared without counsel were held in contempt more than twice as often as parents who were represented by counsel.
The brief went on to describe how the study regarded South Carolina family courts as “assembly lines” and contempt findings were “inevitable” for many litigants in such actions. Unfortunately, sometimes people do not comply with divorce or child support orders, or they simply cannot comply because circumstances have changed. This is when real problems can arise. When a person fails to comply with a court order, the party who is negatively affected can bring a petition asking the court to find the refusing person in contempt of court. There are several types of contempt you should understand.
What is Contempt of Court?
To put it simply, contempt is not playing by the rules. Courts have inherent authority to enforce their own orders. Obviously, the justice system would not function well if courts were unable to force compliance with their final decision. However, this power is not unlimited.
Direct vs. Constructive Contempt
Direct contempt occurs in the presence of the judge, and constructive contempt does not. A simple example of direct contempt would be refusing to stop speaking when instructed to do so by a judge during a proceeding. The judge can hold parties or their attorneys in direct contempt for refusing to comply with in-court instructions. Constructive contempt is when someone refuses to comply with a court order outside the presence of the judge. This is the most common form of contempt.
Criminal vs. Civil Contempt
In addition to the distinction between in-court contempt and out-of-court contempt, there is also an important distinction to be drawn between civil and criminal contempt. Civil contempt is designed to compel or coerce compliance. It is not intended to be punitive or to punish the alleged offender. Instead, it is designed to give teeth to the court order and make the person do that which has been commanded.
On the other hand, criminal contempt is indeed very punitive, as it is designed to punish an offender for intentional conduct. It can carry a criminal sanction, including fines or jail time. Even if the offender attempts to right the wrong, the sanction is imposed as punishment.
Defending a Petition for Rule to Show Cause
One of the most common forms of contempt proceedings is a Petition for Rule to Show Cause. These actions are actually designed to seek civil contempt orders against allegedly non-compliant persons and are typically brought to enforce child support orders or other court orders that were entered as part of a custody or divorce case.
If you are served with a Petition for Rule to Show Cause, you must appear in court and provide a reason for noncompliance or show that you are indeed in compliance with the court order in question.
Get Help Today
The Supreme Court has acknowledged that unrepresented parties are at a great disadvantage in family court. If you are the subject of a contempt proceeding, or you feel your ex-spouse is failing to comply with the court order, contact our office to speak with an attorney today. The dedicated lawyers of Klok Law Firm LLC can answer your toughest questions and help give you guidance on how to proceed.