Which Type: Criminal or Civil?
Last Updated: 12/01/23

Key Concepts

  • There are two types of contempt -- criminal and civil -- and the grounds, legal processes, and available sanctions for each type are different.
  • Criminal contempt is punitive in nature, intended as a sanction for a past act showing willful disrespect or disobedience to the court.
  • Civil contempt is remedial in nature, intended to enforce compliance with an ongoing court order.

Determining whether an action for contempt is criminal or civil depends primarily on whether the remedy or sanction being imposed is designed to be punitive or coercive. For a more detailed discussion of the distinctions between civil and criminal contempt, see Bishop v. Bishop, 90 N.C. App. 499 (1988)State v. Mauney, 106 N.C. App. 26 (1992); Hicks v. Feiock, 485 U.S. 624 (1988), but the key differences are briefly summarized below.

Criminal:  If a contempt action is brought as a form of punishment for a past act that shows disrespect to the court or challenges the court’s authority, such as disobeying a court order or vocally disrupting a court proceeding, the action is for criminal contempt and G.S. 5A-11 through 17 apply.

Civil:  If the purpose of a contempt action is to force compliance with an ongoing court order, the action is for civil contempt and G.S. 5A-21 through 25 apply. See O’Briant v. O’Briant, 313 N.C. 432 (1985) and G.S. 5A-21, Official Commentary



Criminal Contempt


Civil Contempt



To punish.       

To force compliance with a court order



Committing one of the willful acts specified in G.S. 5A-11(a).

Willful failure to comply with a court order if the person is able to comply or to take reasonable measures that would enable the person to comply. G.S. 5A-21(a).


Plenary proceeding, G.S. 5A-14, or summary proceeding, G.S. 5A-15.

Plenary proceeding, G.S. 5A-23.


Order and Findings:

A finding of criminal contempt must be based on evidence that supports findings of fact beyond a reasonable doubt. G.S. 5A-14(b); G.S. 5A-15(f).

The order finding the person in civil contempt must specify the actions that the person must take to “purge” himself or herself of the contempt. G.S. 5A-23(e).


Censure, 30 days imprisonment, fine up to $500. Judge may reduce the sentence at any time based on the defendant’s actions and ends of justice; G.S. 5A-12(c).

If civil contempt is for failure to pay child support or failure to comply with court order to perform an act not requiring payment of monetary judgment, imprisonment for as long as civil contempt continues. Otherwise, 90 days’ imprisonment with additional 90-day periods up to maximum of 12 months. Defendant must be released if/when civil contempt ceases.



G.S. 5A-17; G.S. 15A-1431.

Appeal of criminal contempt finding in district court goes to superior court. Michael v. Michael, 77 N.C. App. 841 (1985).

G.S. 5A-24;G.S. 1-268 et seq.

Appeal of civil contempt finding in district court goes to Court of Appeals. State v. Mauney, 106 N.C. App. 26 (1992).



Although a person can be subject to a single hearing in which a judge may consider whether to find the person in civil or criminal contempt, a person found in criminal contempt may not also be found in civil contempt for the same conduct, and a person found in civil contempt may not also be found in criminal contempt for the same conduct. See G.S. 5A-23(g); G.S. 5A-12(d); G.S. 5A-21(c).