Since the Rule to Show Cause is the way to enforce a court order, the ultimate purpose of a Rule is to get the other side to comply with the terms of that order. It is not, strictly speaking, about punishing a violation. There is a procedure for that and it is a criminal contempt proceeding; that is a completely different beast from the civil contempt proceeding that we are discussing here. Almost all child support enforcement actions are civil contempt proceedings. In this context, everything that is not “criminal” is “civil” in nature. That is a general division of the law that is true in other contexts as well, but it is especially important to keep in mind during a Rule to Show Cause.
In a criminal case we are, among other things, trying to punish a convict for past behavior. In a civil case, we are usually trying to compensate one party for the actions of another; it is not about punishing one side but instead about helping the other. In the case of a Rule to Show Cause, a civil contempt proceeding tries to coerce the defendant to comply with the earlier court order.
Of course, if the defendant is not found in contempt then nothing more happens; the case is just dismissed. If the defendant is found in contempt, though, then the judge has to decide how to best get the defendant to do what the earlier order said. One problem is that a contemnor (that is, a person held in contempt) has already violated one court order, so it is hard to trust them to comply with a new one. The law gives judges a lot of leeway to decide how best to handle an order violation, but the two most common remedies are: (1) fines and (2) jail.
We will look at the specifics of the two remedies, and some other things the judge can do, in the next post.
And now, please enjoy this disclaimer: The content of this post, indeed of all of my posts, is intended to reference only Virginia law. I am writing this blog to give some idea of the complexities that can underlie family law issues in Virginia and in no way am I giving anyone legal advice here. While I hope these posts will be informative, no one should feel entitled to rely on the information presented here as an authoritative source. Anyone facing a legal issue is well advised to speak to a lawyer face to face to discuss the specifics of that case, rather than relying on general information found on the internet.