What are summary offences?

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Summary offences are criminal offences that can be dealt with summarily – that is, without an indictment or trial by jury. In Western Australia, summary offences are known as “simple offences”. In overseas jurisdictions summary offences are sometimes known as “petty offences” or “misdemeanours”. While summary offences are certainly ‘less serious’ than indictable offences, they are not necessarily minor, as many can result in a term of imprisonment. Trials for summary offences are heard in inferior courts (the lowest court of the hierarchy) such as the Local Court (in New South Wales) and Magistrate’s Courts (in other States and Territories). Summary offences are heard by a magistrate, who determines both the verdict and the sanction. Persons charged with a summary offence cannot have the matter heard by a jury, even if that is their wish.

Every Australian jurisdiction has legislation that outlines which offences can be heard summarily, as well as prescribing penalties for each offence. In Victoria the relevant legislation is the Summary Offences Act (1966). Some examples of summary offences according to this act include:

  • obstructing pathways or thoroughfares in a manner risking injury (S7)
  • willful destruction or damage of property (S9)
  • drunk in a public place and drunk and disorderly (S13-14)
  • obscene exposure in a public place (S19)
  • common assault and aggravated assault (S23-24)
  • obtaining goods with a valueless cheque (S37)
  • taking or using a vehicle without the consent of the owner (S38)
  • viewing, capturing or distributing images of another person’s genitals (S41)
  • the tattooing, branding or tongue-splitting of juveniles (S42)
  • the intimate body piercing of persons under the age of 18 (S44)
  • the destruction, shooting or entrapment of homing pigeons (S46)
  • begging or incitement to beg (S49)
  • obstructing ambulance staff as they treat others (S51)
  • making false reports to police (S53)

Other States also have their own legislation outlining summary offences and their penalties (see Useful Link box). Commonwealth law also outlines numerous summary offences under Commonwealth law, such as social security offences (making false statement, submitting a false document and obtaining undue payment) telecommunications offences and fisheries and wildlife offences. Since there is no network of Commonwealth criminal courts, most Commonwealth summary offences are heard in State or Territory Magistrate’s Courts.

Summary offences are generally dealt with quickly and efficiently. If the accused pleads guilty, the prosecution simply summarises the offences and establishes the basic facts. The accused or their legal counsel will speak on their behalf, offer mitigating factors and/or character references. The magistrate will then find the matter proven, speak briefly to the accused and deliver a sanction. This process may take no more than several minutes. If the accused pleads not guilty, the magistrate will review the evidence, hear witnesses and decide whether or not the matter is proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. If the magistrate returns a finding of guilt, he or she will then decide an appropriate sanction.

About criminal law Criminal offences

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