A civil contempt proceeding is a process by which a party seeks redress for a disobedient party's failure to abide by a court order. The purpose of a civil contempt proceeding is to coerce the contemnor (the wrongdoer) to comply with the court order at issue, which can be a temporary order or a final judgment, and to compensate the complaining party for losses sustained. Contempt actions are extremely common in divorce and family law matters. Typically, a contempt action is brought as a result of a party's failure to pay child support or wrongful withholding of parenting time/visitation, however, it can be used as a tool to hold a party accountable for willfully violating any court order, including a party’s failure to comply with the terms and provisions contained in a stipulation or final settlement agreement. A contempt proceeding is initiated by filing either a complaint (in MA) or a motion (in RI) to adjudge the disobedient party in contempt.
To be enforceable by contempt proceedings, an order should be clear and certain in its terms and should be sufficient to enable one reading it to learn therefrom what he may or may not do. Individuals attempting to comply with a court order, since they are under the threat of judicial punishment, are entitled to be told in clear, specific, and precise terms what is expected of them. A finding of civil contempt, which is within the sound discretion of the trial justice and depends on the circumstances of each case, is based on clear and convincing evidence of a party's lack of substantial compliance with a court order. At a contempt hearing, the evidence must specifically demonstrate (1) that the alleged contemnor had notice that he was within the order's ambit, (2) that the order was clear and unambiguous, (3) that the alleged contemnor had the ability to comply, and (4) that the order was indeed violated. The matter of contempt is addressed to the sound discretion of the court, to be exercised in accordance with particular facts and findings as to the extent and wilfulness of respondent's contempt for the authority and dignity of the court. Determining whether a party has violated an order of the court, so as to support a finding of civil contempt, depends on the circumstances of each case.
In Massachusetts, by statute, if a party is found in civil contempt, the moving party is entitled to an award of attorney’s fees. This statutory authority is in addition to any contractual basis on which such an award may be based. In Rhode, Island, the award of an attorney's fee in a civil-contempt case is a sanction the imposition of which is left to the sound discretion of the trial court. The only restraint on the trial justice's discretion is that the award of an attorney's fee should be reasonably related to the extent and willfulness of the contempt. In both states, when circumstances so require, an individual may be incarcerated upon a finding of civil contempt with the judge, but may effectuate his or her own release by complying with any "purge order" established by the judge.