Civil contempt of court is defined as a private injury to a litigant arising from the opposing party’s disobedience of a court order or court process. When a court order is made by a judge requiring a litigant to do or refrain from doing some act, the court expects the litigant to obey the order. It is essential to the justice system and the rule of law that litigants comply with court orders.
Since, as the late Justice Lax stated in Chiang (Trustee of) v. Chaing,¹ “The courts do not have an army to enforce their orders,” the courts must rely on their power to punish for contempt of court to enforce their orders.
If a litigant has disobeyed a court order, other than for the payment of money, the opposing party may bring a contempt motion to the Superior Court of Justice seeking remedies including the performance of an act, compliance with the breached order, payment of a fine, or even imprisonment. In Ontario, contempt motions are governed by Rule 60.11 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.
Typically, a litigant who has disobeyed a court order – called a “contemnor” – is given an opportunity to purge him or herself of the contempt by complying with the original court order. If the contemnor fails to do so, the judge hearing the contempt motion will convene a contempt hearing where the moving party must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the contemnor is in contempt of court. The criteria making up civil contempt are as follows:
Since one possible penalty for contempt of court is imprisonment, a contemnor has the usual procedural safeguards afforded to an accused person in a criminal trial as well as those protections afforded under section 11 of the Charter.
Contempt of court is typically a motion of last resort for a litigant who is dealing with a disobedient opposing party. However, given the gravity of the offence in the eyes of the court, it is a motion to be taken seriously.