Civil Contempt vs. Criminal Contempt: What Is the Difference?

Updated May 3, 2024
4 min read
Title "Civil Contempt vs Criminal Contempt"; suitcase, Themis, papers, handcuffs, US flag, building

Understanding the law often requires distinguishing between similar legal terms with different meanings. Contempt of court meaning is a prime example. The concept may seem straightforward, but it significantly differs when it is divided into a civil and criminal contempt. Both are tools in the judiciary's arsenal to enforce orders and maintain respect for the legal process, yet they serve different purposes, have distinctive procedures, and lead to separate outcomes. This guide will set things clear, enhancing your legal literacy and possibly informing your conduct in legal settings on what is contempt of court.

Definitions of Сriminal Сontempt vs. Сivil Сontempt

Sometimes, civil contempt charges may come as a result of non-compliance with court orders. Below, we explore the key differences between criminal and civil contempts, shedding light on what constitutes each type and the implications they carry.

What is civil contempt?

When a person fails to follow an order of the court or judge, which would benefit the opposing party, this is usually cited as civil contempt of court. Failure to pay child support or to produce documents despite a court order are just a few examples of omissions that may cause someone to be cited for civil contempt of court punishment. 

What is criminal contempt?

On the other hand, criminal contempt is an offense against the court or judge’s authority and dignity. Insulting the judge, communicating with jurors, or disrupting court proceedings are common examples of acts that may be cited for criminal contempt of court meaning.

This distinction, however, is not always cut-and-dry. Judges may exercise broad discretion as to how to classify certain acts, depending on various factors.

Similarities Between Criminal and Civil Contempt

Criminal and civil contempt of court can be also similar. Both types may arise in civil and criminal proceedings. Both civil and criminal contempt cases may proceed independently of the proceedings from which the contempt charge arose.

Contempt may also be direct or indirect. Direct contempt is committed in the presence of the court or judge, or in close proximity to it, while indirect civil contempt of court is committed outside the court. 

One common misconception is the belief that criminal contempt involves the imposition of a penalty, while civil contempt does not. However, both civil and criminal contempt may involve the imposition of a fine, as well as some form of detention or imprisonment. 

Civil Contempt vs. Criminal Contempt

What is contempt of court in civil and criminal realms? Both differ in terms of their objectives, consequences, burden of proof required, defenses, and presidential pardons.

1. Objectives

When the contempt charge aims to coerce or force a person to comply with a court order, then it is civil contempt hearing. On the other hand, holding someone in criminal contempt aims to punish the contemnor for disrespecting the authority or dignity of the court. This distinction may also relate to monetary fines and/or penalties imposed. If the penalty or fine is intended to compensate another party, then it is civil. If it is intended to punish the person who committed the contemptuous act, then it is criminal.

2. Consequences

A punishment in criminal contempt is usually final, and it cannot be lifted by correcting or promising not to repeat the contemptuous act. On the other hand, civil contempt may be conditional. Can you go to jail for civil contempt? No. In many cases, the judge may lift the charges and the punishment upon compliance with the court order. For instance, if a person gets detained for withholding evidence in their custody, they may be released as soon as they produce it. In some cases, an apology to the judge may even suffice.

3. Burden of proof required

Civil contempt can be proven by the standard of clear and convincing evidence. This means the evidence presented is likely to prove that contempt was indeed committed. Truthful statements may be enough for civil contempt and a general affidavit can be easily customized to specify them.

Criminal contempt, meanwhile, requires a higher standard, which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

4. Defenses

A person charged with civil contempt may avail of the “impossibility defense,” when they are totally unable to comply with the court order. This defense is not available in criminal contempt simply because the latter involves an overt act, and not a failure to act.

5. Due process rights

Unlike civil contempt, criminal contempt is a criminal offense, and courts try and decide these as a criminal proceeding. It follows, therefore, that one charged with a criminal contempt is entitled to the constitutional due process protections guaranteed to persons accused of a crime. These include the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, the right to a trial by jury, the right to confront one’s accuser, and the right to counsel (and for the court to appoint an attorney if the accused cannot afford one).

6. Presidential pardon

A person charged with criminal contempt may be pardoned by the president. This remedy is usually not available in civil contempt cases. 


With the current advances in technology, it’s much easier to commit acts that may be cited in what is civil contempt. Tweeting or contacting a witness online while on jury duty, are not only causes for contempt; they can also result in miscarriages of justice.

Whether you’re an attorney, plaintiff, defendant, witness, member of the jury, or a court officer, it helps to know the difference between civil and criminal contempt. These will determine the best legal course of action in the unfortunate event that you or your client gets cited for contempt. In any case, it would be best to avoid civil or criminal contempt charges along with lengthy and expensive litigation and file for a motion for civil contempt with a professional lawyer in your location.

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