Legal Dictionary

summary offence

Legal Definition of summary offence

Related terms

Definition of summary offence

Further reading

A summary offence, also known as a petty crime, is a criminal act in some common law jurisdictions that can be proceeded with summarily, without the right to a jury trial and/or indictment (required for an indictable offence).

United States

In the United States, "there are certain minor or petty offenses that may be proceeded against summarily, and without a jury"[1][2] and which are codified in 18 U.S.C. � 19. Any crime punishable by more than six months imprisonment must have some means for a jury trial.[3] Contempt of court is considered a prerogative of the court, as "the requirement of a jury does not apply to 'contempts committed in disobedience of any lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command entered in any suit or action brought or prosecuted in the name of, or on behalf of, the United States[.]'"[4]

Some states (Virginia) provide that in all offenses must at some point grant to the defendant a jury trial if they request it, meaning that one could obtain a jury trial in some states even for a parking ticket. Summary offenses have a length of time for which they are valid on a state's recordkeeping. In most states, summary offences last 5�7 years.


There have been criticisms over the practice. In particular, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in a dissent that "[i]t is high time, in my judgment, to wipe out root and branch the judge-invented and judge-maintained notion that judges can try criminal contempt cases without a jury."[5]

United Kingdom

In relation to England and Wales, the expression "summary offence" means an offence which, if committed by an adult, is triable only summarily; and the term "summary", in its application to offences, is to be construed accordingly. In this definition, references to the way in which an offence is triable are to be construed without regard to the effect, if any, of section 22 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 on the mode of trial in a particular case.

Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, described summary offences thus:

    "By a summary proceeding I mean principally such as is directed by several acts of parliament (for the common law is a stranger to it, unless in the case of contempts) for the conviction of offenders, and the inflicting of certain penalties created by those acts of parliament. In these there is no intervention of a jury, but the party accused is acquitted or condemned by the suffrage of such person only, as the statute has appointed for his judge. An institution designed professedly for the greater ease of the subject, by doing him speedy justice, and by not harrassing the freeholders with frequent and troublesome attendances to try every minute offence. But it has of late been so far extended, as, if a check be not timely given, to threaten the disuse of our admirable and truly English trial by jury, unless only in capital cases."

In the United Kingdom, trials for summary offences are heard in one of a number of types of lower court. For England and Wales this is the Magistrates' Court. In Scotland, it is the Sheriff Court or District Court, depending on the offence (the latter being primarily for the most minor of offences). Northern Ireland has its own Magistrates' Court system.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, trials for summary offences are heard in one of the territory's Magistrates' Courts.


  1. Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540 (1888)
  2. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968)
  3. Lewis v. United States, 518 U.S. 322 (1996)
  4. United States v. Barnett, 376 U.S. 681 (1964)
  5. Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540 (1888)


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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