Dissecting Disobedience: A Closer Look at Civil Contempt

Denis Grigoras

Denis is a lawyer who draws on his background in complex legal disputes and transactions to problem-solve for his clients.

Civil contempt of court is a complex legal concept that originates from the need to preserve justice and prevent obstruction. It encompasses a wide range of actions, from interfering with the due course of justice to undermining the authority of a court.

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Civil Contempt


Civil contempt of court is a complex legal concept that originates from the need to preserve justice and prevent obstruction. It encompasses a wide range of actions, from interfering with the due course of justice to undermining the authority of a court. In this comprehensive legal blog post, we will delve into the intricacies of civil contempt, its legal principles, proceedings, and enforcement mechanisms. Understanding civil contempt is crucial for individuals, corporations, and other entities that may become involved in legal disputes.

Classes of Civil Contempt

Civil contempt can be broadly categorized into two main classes: acts that undermine a court’s authority and acts that interfere with the due course of justice. Misbehaviour in the courtroom is a common example of actions that may be considered contemptuous. The power to hold someone in contempt is essential for ensuring compliance with court orders and maintaining the rule of law, which is the foundation of a civil society.

Proceedings for Civil Contempt

Unlike criminal contempt, civil contempt is considered a private matter, with proceedings initiated by the aggrieved party. In Ontario, for instance, a “show cause” hearing allows the accused to demonstrate why no order should be made against them. To establish contempt, the court must be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the terms of the order are clear, proper notice was given, the order was breached, and the accused intended to breach the order. Additionally, the court must adhere to legal restrictions and ensure that the accused’s Charter rights are respected throughout the process.

Sanctions and Remedies

The primary focus of sanctions for civil contempt is to coerce compliance with court orders. Sanctions may include fines, imprisonment, or both, but they must be proportionate and not overly punitive. It is essential to note that civil contempt charges can be purged if the individual complies with the court’s order, emphasizing its remedial nature.

Requirements for Contempt Liability

At common law, personal knowledge of a court order is required for an individual to be held liable for contempt. To cite someone for contempt due to non-compliance, the order must be clear, unambiguous, and proven to be breached beyond a reasonable doubt. The citation for contempt must also be defined with particularity. Jurisdiction and constitutionality are not necessary elements for establishing contempt liability.

In cases where a person controls a corporation, they are only responsible for ensuring compliance if their relationship with the company makes them accountable for the corporation’s actions.

Non-Parties and Contempt Liability

A judgment or order typically binds only those who were parties to the proceeding. However, rule 60.06 allows non-parties to enforce or be subject to enforcement of orders. Non-parties can be held liable for contempt if they encourage a party to violate an order or obstruct the course of justice. Directors of corporations must ensure compliance with court orders. Courts can make orders affecting non-parties in representative proceedings or to prevent third parties from assisting in the circumvention of court orders. If a property owner is enjoined, a buyer with notice of the injunction may be bound by it.

Contempt and the Sub Judice Rule

In R. v. Gray, it was concluded that a person can be found in contempt for acts or writings that obstruct or interfere with the judicial process. Contempt may include intimidation or bribery of witnesses/jurors, misleading the court, and violating a court-imposed stay, among others. The sub judice rule restricts public discussion of ongoing court matters to prevent interference with the administration of justice. Breaching the rule involves publishing prejudicial statements or information, violating publication bans, or attempting to sway public opinion on a case.

Contempt by Scandalizing the Court

Judicial officers and their judgments are not immune to public criticism or commentary. Fair criticism is allowed, provided it does not impute improper motives or act maliciously. In the case of Newfoundland (Attorney General) v. Hanlon, the court held that the union president’s statement comparing injunctions to toilet paper was not contemptuous but cautioned against undermining the authority of the court and the public’s confidence in the administration of justice.

Obedience to Court Orders

As a general rule, court orders must be obeyed, even if the order appears contrary to law or likely to be overturned on appeal. Good faith belief that an order will be set aside is insufficient grounds for non-compliance. However, there must be limits to this rule in the interest of justice.

Orders ideally should be made on notice and only involve parties before the court. Some orders can have permanent, detrimental, and irreversible effects on parties, particularly those not present in court.  Courts have not fully addressed the contempt process in such cases, so general statements about the obligation to obey orders should be considered with caution. Nevertheless, parties and non-parties should strive to comply with court orders, seek legal counsel, and use the appropriate channels to contest orders they believe to be unjust or in error.

Enforcement Mechanisms: Sequestration

Writs of sequestration enforce court orders by seizing a party’s property and taking them into custody. Sequestrators manage property to collect rents or profits to pay the judgment.  Courts are reluctant to use sequestration when other remedies may work and require proof of the ineffectiveness of other enforcement methods before resorting to sequestration. This enforcement mechanism is typically used when the individual or corporation is avoiding compliance with court orders or when other enforcement measures, such as fines or imprisonment, have proven to be ineffective.

Constitutionality of Contempt Proceedings

Contempt proceedings must adhere to the principles enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The right to a fair trial, freedom of expression, and the presumption of innocence are fundamental rights that must be upheld in contempt cases. Courts must balance these rights against the need to protect the administration of justice and maintain public confidence in the legal system.

Strategies for Mitigating the Risk of Contempt

When facing the possibility of contempt charges, individuals and corporations can implement several strategies to minimize risk. These may include:

  1. Legal Advice: Obtaining legal counsel is crucial when navigating the complexities of civil contempt. A qualified attorney can guide you through the process and provide strategic advice on compliance, negotiations, and court appearances.

  2. Documentation: Maintaining detailed records of all communications, decisions, and actions taken in response to court orders can provide valuable evidence if you are accused of contempt. This documentation may help demonstrate your efforts to comply with the court order and your understanding of its terms.

  3. Communication: Open communication with opposing counsel can help resolve misunderstandings and prevent contempt proceedings. Demonstrating a willingness to cooperate and negotiate in good faith may encourage the opposing party to reconsider initiating contempt proceedings.

  4. Seeking Clarification: If a court order is unclear or ambiguous, seeking clarification or requesting an amendment to the order can help prevent misunderstandings and ensure compliance.

  5. Timely Compliance: Complying with court orders as promptly as possible can reduce the risk of contempt charges. Delaying compliance may be perceived as willful disobedience, increasing the likelihood of being held in contempt.

Appealing Contempt Orders

Contempt orders can be appealed, but the appellate court will typically show deference to the lower court’s findings. An appellate court will only overturn a contempt order if it is satisfied that the lower court made an error in law, fact, or exercised its discretion unreasonably. It is important to note that the standard of review for contempt orders is high, and successful appeals are relatively rare.


Civil contempt is a complex area of law that exists to uphold the integrity of the justice system and ensure compliance with court orders. Parties and non-parties must take care to comply with court orders, even if they disagree with them, to avoid the potentially severe consequences of being held in contempt. By understanding the intricacies of civil contempt, seeking legal advice, and employing strategies to mitigate risk, individuals and corporations can better navigate the legal landscape and safeguard their rights and interests.

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