The means of enforcement of an equitable order in Georgia is through a petition for contempt. Contempt is a legal proceeding filed to enforce the terms of an injunction or restraining order. The remedy is invoked by filing a motion or new petition raising the issue of the violation of a prior order with a request that the court issue a new order to require compliance. The injunction is Stage 1. Contempt is Stage 2. Most people do not get to State 2, but when they do, the result can be harsh.
A contempt proceeding can be either criminal or civil.
The difference between criminal and civil contempt depends on the purpose for which the power is exercised. Ensley v. Ensley, 239 Ga. 860, 861, 238 S.E.2d 920 (1977). “The distinction between the two is that criminal contempt imposes unconditional punishment for prior acts of contumacy, whereas civil contempt imposes conditional punishment as a means of coercing future compliance with a prior court order.” Carey Canada, Inc. v. Hinely, 257 Ga. 150, 151, 356 S.E.2d 202, cert. denied, 484 U.S. 898, 108 S.Ct. 233, 98 L.Ed.2d 192 (1987).
Contempt as a remedy can arise in different types of cases. In a case involving a continuing trespass to real property that violates the legal title owner's rights, an injunction is often sought to force a party to honor the rights of the landowner. An injunction may be all that is required provided the parties adhere to its terms. Where they refuse to comply, the court turns to contempt to enforce its orders.
A contempt motion is a proper way to require a party to adhere to the terms of a prior order regarding easement rights to a road or private right of way. Harvey v. Lindsey, 251 Ga. App. 387, 390, 554 S.E.2d 523, 526 (2001). The court looks to the intent of the prior order in determining whether the parties have violated it.
In a contempt proceeding, a court may interpret and clarify an existing order but may not modify the terms and obligations already set forth.2 To determine whether an order has been clarified, as opposed to being modified, the test is whether the new order is a reasonable clarification or so contrary to the apparent intent of the original order as to constitute a modification.3 The intent is found by looking at the content of the order and the context in which it was created.4