You may have heard of the phrase “Ignorance of the law is not a reasonable defense”, which comes from the Latin phrase, Ignorancia juris not excusatt (“ignorance of the law excuses not). This legal principle is mostly discussed in criminal proceedings, in which defendants are subject to specific sanctions regardless of their intent, or lack of understanding of the law. However, what applies in the criminal courts is not always applicable in the civil courts, especially in the family part where most of the cases are of a deeply personal nature.
In fact, it's very common to hear family court defendants say things like “I didn't know I was violating the Order”, or “I didn't know that's what the Order meant”. Well, it could be that a person truly did make a mistake, or really doesn't comprehend certain parts of the court order. Then again, this alleged misunderstanding could result in serious violations to the other party's rights. Custody orders, for example, have specific and sometimes, rather complicated terms in order to ensure that each parent has a fair amount of involvement in their child's life. Deviating from these terms could mean that one parent has to do some serious rearranging to make up time with his or her child. In the meanwhile, the child could be struggling with resentment over the other parent's seeming abandonment.
While these are not criminal offenses, judges must still decide whether a defendant should be held liable for what appears to be a non-willful violation of a court order. Each case must, of course, be decided on a case-by-case basis, but it's important to note that even the Supreme Court has ruled that willful intent should not be the standard in cases like In re Adoption of N.J.A.C. 5:96 & 5:97 by N.J. Council on Affordable Housing. Although this was not a family law case, it still has impact on civil cases in general, and the “vindication of litigants' rights”, which according to Rule 1:10-3, “does not necessarily require establishing that the violator of an order acted with intent to disobey.”
In short, while it is up to the court's discretion to factor in willful intent, it can also decide that the litigant's rights were violated, and thus the litigant deserves some form of relief via enforcement. Many family court judges default to the preservation of the litigant's rights, because in truth, each party is legally entitled to the enforcement of an existing court order. This principle is particularly important in the case of repeat offenders who continue to insist that they made an honest mistake. Not holding steadfast to the rule of willful intent makes it easier for judges to impose sanctions such as fines, covering the plaintiff's legal fees, and perhaps even jail time. This will, hopefully, result in defendants being more careful in their actions, and maybe even speaking with an attorney if they are indeed confused or uneasy about the terms of a current order