Contempt in family court

It’s not uncommon for couples who have a written agreement or court order to refuse to adhere to the terms of the agreement or order, particularly when it comes to custody and access arrangements. It’s certainly not unheard of for a non-custodial parent, for example, to fail to return a child at the agreed- upon date and time. Some people take liberties when it comes to complying with a court order or agreement because they can get away with it, at least for a time.

Maybe this is what the mother in the 2014 Ontario case of Skalitzky v. Skalitzky thought. Initially, when the mother refused to return her daughter into the father’s care, she was ordered to pay a $6,000 fine if she continued to breach the court order. Although the daughter was 22 years old, she was developmentally delayed, so changes to her normal routine were difficult for her to adjust to.

However, the contempt order coupled with the imposition of a fine did not deter the mother’s behaviour and she continued to violate the existing court order regarding access. Finally, in a last ditch attempt to highlight the seriousness of her actions, the judge imposed a 6-day jail sentence on the mother (which he suspended if the mother chose to comply with the terms of the previous orders).

The Family Law Rules permit judges to make orders for contempt. The remedies include jail time, a fine,
and the requirement to obey any further orders of the court. Although it was not imposed in the Skalitzky
case, when one parent withholds access from the other, a judge may award sole custody to the non-
offending parent. This isn’t done frequently because it has the effect of punishing the child at the same time as punishing the offending parent, so it’s used as aremedy of last resort.

Generally, you’re not going to be sent to jail in response to one incident of contempt of a court order. However, if your behaviour doesn’t change, the consequences may gradually start to escalate. The intention behind a contempt order is to encourage the party to respect orders from the court, and to discourage other people from treating such orders lightly.