Many years ago I brought on contempt of court proceedings in a matrimonial proceeding that resulted in what I would categorize as a waste of time and money.
There are exceptions of course, but in my opinion, since the proceedings are quasi- criminal in the burden of proof required, the Courts are reluctant to readily make a finding of contempt of court but for flagrant intentional violations of an order and even then the penalty is more akin to a slap on the wrist.
In the application of yesteryear, I gave the opposing counsel a copy of a case from the mid 1600’s when the “accused” after being found in contempt of court was executed there and then. The Court did find the husband in contempt but refused to follow the English precedent.
The Supreme Court of Canada reviewed the law of civil contempt in Carey v Laiken 1015 SCC 17 :
” a solicitor holding that as an officer of the court, a solicitor of record is duty-bound to take scrupulous care to ensure respect for court orders. … [A]s the solicitor of record in the case, Carey should be held to the same standard of compliance as his client who was a party. [para. 64]”
The Canadian Common Law of Civil Contempt
30 Contempt of court “rest[s] on the power of the court to uphold its dignity and process …. The rule of law is directly dependent on the ability of the courts to enforce their process and maintain their dignity and respect”: U.N.A. v. Alberta (Attorney General),  1 S.C.R. 901 (S.C.C.), at p. 931. It is well-established that the purpose of a contempt order is “first and foremost a declaration that a party has acted in defiance of a court order”: Pro Swing Inc. v. ELTA Golf Inc., 2006 SCC 52,  2 S.C.R. 612 (S.C.C.), at para. 35, cited in Bell ExpressVu Ltd. Partnership v. Torroni, 2009 ONCA 85, 94 O.R. (3d) 614 (Ont. C.A.), at para. 20.
31 The common law has developed to recognize two forms of contempt of court: criminal contempt and civil contempt. The distinction, which the parties to this appeal accept, rests on the element of public defiance accompanying criminal contempt: see, e.g., United Nurses, at p. 931; Canadian Transport (U.K.) Ltd. v. Alsbury,  1 S.C.R. 516 (S.C.C.), at p. 522. With civil contempt, where there is no element of public defiance, the matter is generally seen “primarily as coercive rather than punitive”: R. J. Sharpe, Injunctions and Specific Performance (2nd ed. (looseleaf)), at ¶6.100. However, one purpose of sentencing for civil contempt is punishment for breaching a court order: Korea Data Systems Co. v. Chiang, 2009 ONCA 3, 305 D.L.R. (4th) 655 (Ont. C.A.), at para. 117. Courts sometimes impose substantial fines to match the gravity of the contempt, to deter the contemnor’s continuing conduct and to deter others from comparable conduct: Sharpe, at ¶6.100.
33 The first element is that the order alleged to have been breached “must state clearly and unequivocally what should and should not be done”: Prescott-Russell, at para. 27; Bell ExpressVu, at para. 28, citing with approval Jaskhs Enterprises Inc. v. Indus Corp. [2004 CarswellOnt 4036 (Ont. S.C.J.)] 2004 CanLII 32262, at para. 40. This requirement of clarity ensures that a party will not be found in contempt where an order is unclear: Pro Swing, at para. 24; Bell ExpressVu, at para. 22. An order may be found to be unclear if, for example, it is missing an essential detail about where, when or to whom it applies; if it incorporates overly broad language; or if external circumstances have obscured its meaning: Culligan Canada Ltd. v. Fettes, 2010 SKCA 151, 326 D.L.R. (4th) 463 (Sask. C.A.), at para. 21.
34 The second element is that the party alleged to have breached the order must have had actual knowledge of it:Bhatnager, at p. 226; College of Optometrists, at para. 71. It may be possible to infer knowledge in the circumstances, or an alleged contemnor may attract liability on the basis of the wilful blindness doctrine (ibid.).
35 Finally, the party allegedly in breach must have intentionally done the act that the order prohibits or intentionally failed to do the act that the order compels: Sheppard, Re (1976), 12 O.R. (2d) 4 (Ont. C.A.). at p. 8. The meaning of this element is one of the main points in contention on appeal and I will turn to consider it in more detail momentarily.
36 The contempt power is discretionary and courts have consistently discouraged its routine use to obtain compliance with court orders: see, e.g., Hefkey v. Hefkey, 2013 ONCA 44, 30 R.F.L. (7th) 65 (Ont. C.A.), at para. 3. If contempt is found too easily, “a court’s outrage might be treated as just so much bluster that might ultimately cheapen the role and authority of the very judicial power it seeks to protect”: Centre commercial Les Rivières ltée c. Jean bleu inc., 2012 QCCA 1663 (C.A. Que.), at para. 7. As this Court has affirmed, “contempt of court cannot be reduced to a mere means of enforcing judgments”: Vidéotron ltée c. Industries Microlec produits électroniques inc.,  2 S.C.R. 1065 (S.C.C.), at p. 1078, citing Daigle c. St-Gabriel de Brandon (Paroisse) R.D.J. 249 (C.A. Que.). Rather, it should be used “cautiously and with great restraint”: TG Industries, at para. 32. It is an enforcement power of last rather than first resort: Hefkey, at para. 3; St. Elizabeth Home Society v. Hamilton (City), 2008 ONCA 182, 89 O.R. (3d) 81 (Ont. C.A.), at paras. 41-43; Centre commercial Les Rivières ltée, at para. 64.
37 For example, where an alleged contemnor acted in good faith in taking reasonable steps to comply with the order, the judge entertaining a contempt motion generally retains some discretion to decline to make a finding of contempt: see, e.g., Morrow, Power v. Newfoundland Telephone Co. (1994), 121 Nfld. & P.E.I.R. 334 (Nfld. C.A.), at para. 20; TG Industries, at para. 31. While I prefer not to delineate the full scope of this discretion, given that the issue was not argued before us, I wish to leave open the possibility that a judge may properly exercise his or her discretion to decline to impose a contempt finding where it would work an injustice in the circumstances of the case.
(3) The Required “Intent“
38 It is well settled in Canadian common law that all that is required to establish civil contempt is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of an intentional act or omission that is in fact in breach of a clear order of which the alleged contemnor has notice: Prescott-Russell, at para. 27; College of Optometrists, at para. 71; Sheppard, at p. 8; TG Industries, at paras. 17 and 32; Bhatnager, at pp. 224-25, Sharpe, at ¶ 6.190. The Court of Appeal followed this approach. As it noted, to require a contemnor to have intended to disobey the order would put the test “too high” and result in “mistakes of law [becoming] a defence to an allegation of civil contempt but not to a murder charge” (2013 ONCA 530 (Ont. C.A.), at para. 59). Instead, contumacy or lack thereof goes to the penalty to be imposed following a finding of contempt: para. 62; see also Sheppard and Sharpe, at ¶6.200.
39 The appellant submits, however, that in situations in which the alleged contemnor cannot “purge” the contempt, is a lawyer or is a third party to the order, the intent to interfere with the administration of justice must be proved. I understand this to mean that “the intention to disobey, in the sense of desiring or knowingly choosing to disobey the order” must be established: TG Industries, at para. 17. This is sometimes also referred to as “contumacious” intent.
40 The appellant submits that the mental element of civil contempt must address at least one of the two goals of civil contempt: securing compliance with court orders or protecting the integrity of the administration of justice. Finding a party in contempt where he or she cannot purge (either because the act that constituted the contempt cannot be undone or because a conflicting legal duty prevents compliance with the order) furthers neither of these goals absent some heightened mental element for contempt. Only if the person is shown to have had the intent to interfere with the administration of justice would one of these purposes — protecting the integrity of the administration of justice — be served.
41 I cannot accept this position. There is no principled reason to depart from the established elements of civil contempt in situations in which compliance has become impossible for either of the reasons referred to by the appellant. Where, as here, the person’s own actions contrary to the terms of a court order make future compliance impossible, I fail to see the logic or justice of requiring proof of some higher degree of fault in order to establish contempt. The appellant’s submission also overlooks the point that one of the purposes of the contempt power is to deter violations of court orders, thereby encouraging respect for the administration of justice. It undermines that purpose to treat with special charity people whose acts in violation of an order make subsequent compliance impossible. It seems to me that the existing discretion not to enter a contempt finding and the defence of impossibility of compliance provide better answers than a heightened degree of fault where a party is unable to purge his or her contempt for the reasons the appellant outlines: Jackson at para. 14; Sussex Group Ltd. v. Fangeat (2003), 42 C.P.C. (5th) 274 (Ont. S.C.J.), at para. 56.
42 The appellant correctly notes that civil contempt is quasi-criminal in nature, which he says justifies a higher fault element where contempt cannot be purged. But civil contempt is always quasi-criminal, so this provides no justification for carving out a distinct mental element for particular types of civil contempt cases. As I have already discussed, requiring contumacious intent would open the door to mistakes of law providing a defence to an allegation of civil contempt. It could also permit an alleged contemnor to rely on a misinterpretation of a clear order to avoid a contempt finding, which would significantly undermine the authority of court orders.
43 Further, adopting the appellant’s proposal would in effect make the required mental element dependent on the nature of the order alleged to have been breached. Those who breach a prohibitory order would benefit from this heightened mental element disproportionately, due to subsequent impossibility of compliance, as compared to those who breach a mandatory order, with which the alleged contemnor will be able to subsequently comply absent a conflicting legal duty. I see no principled basis for creating this distinction.
44 The appellant also submits that lawyers should benefit from a heightened fault requirement, but I do not agree. As the Court of Appeal recognized, reliance on legal advice does not shield a party from a finding of contempt: para. 61, citing Mileage Conference Group of the Tyre Manufacturers’ Conference, Re,  2 All E.R. 849 (Eng. Restrictive Practices Ct.), at p. 862; Canada Metal Co. v. Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (No. 2) (1974), 48 D.L.R. (3d) 641 (Ont. H.C.), at p. 661, aff’d (1975), 65 D.L.R. (3d) 231 (Ont. C.A.). Still less should the law permit lawyers to escape a finding of contempt because they have, in effect, relied on their own legal advice.
46 The short answer to this point is that, even accepting this line of authority, Mr. Carey is not in the same category as the third parties discussed in this line of authority. I would respectfully adopt as my own the following excerpt on this point from the reasons of Sharpe J.A. in the Court of Appeal:
The solicitor-client bond creates a community of interest between Carey and Sabourin that is plainly distinguishable from the situation of a stranger to the litigation who is apprised of the court order. As an officer of the court, a solicitor of record is duty-bound to take scrupulous care to ensure respect for court orders. … [A]s the solicitor of record in the case, Carey should be held to the same standard of compliance as his client who was a party. [para. 64]
47 I conclude that “contumacious” intent was not required in this case, and to the extent that the judge at first instance found otherwise in overturning her earlier finding of contempt, she erred in law.
Trevor Todd is one of the province’s most esteemed estate litigation lawyers. He has spent more than 40 years helping the disinherited contest wills and transfers – and win. From his Kerrisdale office, which looks more like an eclectic art gallery than a lawyer’s office, Trevor empowers claimants and restores dignity to families across BC. He is a mentor to young entrepreneurs and an art buff who supports starving artists the world over. He has an eye for talent and a heart for giving back.