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Summary Offences in South Australia

Criminal offences are dealt with differently by the courts depending on whether they are summary or indictable offences. Summary offences are minor offences that can only be finalised in the lower courts (that is, the Magistrates Court and Children’s Court). Summary offences include traffic offences, public disorder offences and liquor and weapons offences. Indictable offences are more serious offences such as assault and murder. This article deals with summary offences in South Australia.

Summons or arrest

A person who is charged with summary offences in South Australia will generally be issued with a summons requiring them to attend a Magistrates Court on a future date. A person who is summonsed in relation to summary offences may attend court to finalise the charge or, if the offences do not carry a penalty of imprisonment, may finalise the matter by way of a written plea. This does not require the person to make a court appearance.

In some cases, a person may be arrested in relation to summary offences. If a person is arrested, they will either be bailed by the police or remanded in custody. If they are remanded, they must be brought to a court at the earliest opportunity and allowed the opportunity to apply for bail.  

Entering a plea

When a person first attends a Magistrates Court in relation to summary offences, they will have the opportunity to finalise the matter on the day by pleading guilty or to adjourn it to a later date. If the accused wishes to seek legal advice or gather supporting material such as character references, they should ask the court to adjourn their matter.

If the accused knows that they intend to plead not guilty, they should indicate this to the court. The prosecution will then be required to serve a copy of the brief of evidence on the defence so that the defence can assess the strength of the case against the accused and prepare their defence or change their plea to guilty.

Pleading guilty to summary offences

A lot of summary offences are finalised on the first occasion that they are mentioned in court. However, this is not always the best course of action. It is always prudent to seek legal advice and thoroughly assess all options prior to pleading guilty.

When a person pleads guilty to summary offences, they will generally be sentenced immediately. The court may order them to pay a fine or impose any of a range of other sentencing orders, including good behaviour bonds and community work orders. In some cases, a person may be sentenced to imprisonment for a summary offence.

Written guilty pleas

Under the Criminal Procedure Act 1921, a person who is summonsed in relation to a summary offence that does not carry a penalty of imprisonment can choose to plead guilty without appearing in court.

A person can plead guilty in writing by returning a form to the Magistrates Court. The court may, on receiving a written plea of guilty, record a conviction and impose a fine in the accused person’s absence.

However, the court can only accept a guilty plea if it appears that the accused is, in fact, guilty of the offence, Therefore, if a written plea contains information that discloses the existence of a legal defence, the court must strike out the guilty plea and adjourn the matter to a later date, requiring the accused to attend.

A young person under 18 cannot plead guilty in this way and must attend court in relation to a summons for summary offences.  

Summary offences act

The Summary Offences Act 1953 sets out a lot of the summary offences in South Australia. Offences under the Summary Offences Act include hindering police, disorderly conduct, begging alms, trespassing, loitering, possessing prohibited weapons, supply of liquor in a prescribed area, using indecent language and urinating in a public place.

Many offences under the Summary Offences Act are punishable by a fine only. Others carry a maximum penalty of imprisonment.

Other summary offences

There are also summary offences contained in other pieces of legislation, such as the Road Traffic Act 1961, which contains driving offences such as driving under the influence (DUI), drink driving and drug driving and the Controlled Substances Act 1984, which contains summary offences relating to drug use and possession.

Infringement notices

In some cases, a person may be issued with an infringement notice in relation to summary offences, rather than being summonsed to court. This often occurs in relation to traffic offences that do not carry a penalty of imprisonment.

When a person receives an infringement notice, they may choose to be prosecuted for the offence instead of dealing with it as an infringement. The matter will then go to court and the person will be summonsed. They will then have the opportunity to contest the charge, should they wish to do so.

If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Go To Court Lawyers.


Fernanda Dahlstrom

Fernanda Dahlstrom has a Bachelor of Laws from Latrobe University, a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice from the College of Law, a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne and a Master of Arts (Writing and Literature) from Deakin University. Fernanda practised law for eight years, working in criminal defence, child protection and domestic violence law in the Northern Territory. She also practised in family law after moving to Brisbane in 2016.
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