What is civil contempt of court? A fair question given the Ontario Court of Appeal's recent decision to uphold a 14 month sentence for civil contempt in the case of Barry Landen. Mr. Landen had defrauded the estate of his good friend Paul Penni of millions of dollars. This 14 month sentence arose not from the crime Landen committed (for which to date he has served only a 45 day sentence) but from his failure to abide by orders of the court. Landen had been ordered by the court to provide information regarding the affairs of the estate. He failed to do so. As a result, the court found him guilty of civil contempt. That power derives from the requirement that the courts uphold the rule of law. In the words of the Supreme Court of Canada:
"The rule of law is at the heart of our society; without it there can be neither peace, nor order nor good government. The rule of law is directly dependent on the ability of the court to enforce their process and maintain their dignity and respect. To maintain their process and respect, courts since the 12th century have exercised the power to punish for contempt of court."
Civil contempt is therefore conduct that challenges or threatens the rule of law. It is conduct that cannot be overlooked by the courts. The courts do not lightly invoke the power to find someone in contempt. However, when they do, large fines and jail time are likely. In considering what the punishment should be for contempt, the courts consider factors such as the gravity of the conduct, the need for deterrence, both of the individual and generally, the protection of the public, and the willfulness of the impugned conduct.
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