Summary Offences in the ACT

In the ACT, a person can be charged with a summary offence of an indictable offence. All criminal matters commence in the Magistrates Court (or Children’s Court if the accused is under 18) but not all matters can be finalised there. Summary offences are minor criminal offences that are finalised in the lower courts. This page deals with summary offences in the Australian Capital Territory. 

Which offences are summary offences?

Summary offences in the ACT include traffic offences under the Road Transport (Safety and Traffic Management) Act 1999 such as speeding, drink driving, driving whilst disqualified and dangerous driving. The Crimes Act 1900 also contains minor offence that are summary offences such as common assault under section 26 of the Crimes Act 1900, offensive behaviour under section 392 and fighting under section 391.

Penalties for summary offences

In the ACT, the maximum penalty that can be imposed for a single offence in the Magistrates Court is two years imprisonment. However, some summary offences have shorter maximum penalties and some are punishable by a fine only – for example, fighting, which has a maximum penalty of a 20 penalty unit fine.

Indictable offences heard summarily

Under section 190 of the Legislation Act 2001, indictable offences in the ACT are criminal offences punishable by two years imprisonment or more, or which legislation states are indictable offences.

In the ACT, indictable offences with a maximum penalty of between two years imprisonment and five years imprisonment can be heard summarily if both parties agree and the magistrate considers it is appropriate. Indictable offences that can be heard summarily in the ACT include stealing and fraud.

If a person is charged with an indictable offence that is not to be heard summarily, the matter must go through a committal hearing in the Magistrates Court. If the evidence is sufficient that the accused could be found guilty by a jury, the matter will be committed to the Supreme Court for finalisation.

Limitation period

A limitation period is the amount of time that the police have to start a prosecution after an offence. A limitation period of 12 months applies to summary offences in the ACT, except where the legislation specifies another limitation period. Once 12 months have passed since the date of the alleged offence, the person cannot be charged.

Pleading guilty to summary offences in the ACT

A person who is charged with summary offences in the ACT will be arrested or summonsed to appear in the Magistrates Court. When they attend court, they can choose to finalise the matter on the day if they are pleading guilty. However, in many cases, it is advisable to adjourn the matter and seek legal advice. A Go To Court criminal solicitor will assist you by identifying:

  • The likely penalty range in your situation
  • Whether there is a defence available

A lawyer will also go through the police summary of facts. If there are any statements in the police summary that you disagree with, the lawyer may be able to negotiate with the police to have the facts amended. The court will sentence you based on this document, so it is important that it accurately summarises what happened.

In some circumstances, your lawyer may also be able to negotiate for the withdrawal of charges or the replacement of one charge with another after hearing your instructions about what happened. For example, a person may have been charged with dangerous driving in a situation where they are really only guilty of reckless driving. Offering a plea to the lesser charge may avoid the need to run a contested hearing on the more serious charge. 

Pleading not guilty to summary offences 

If you have been charged with summary offences and you want to plead not guilty, a Go To Court Lawyer will talk you through the strengths and weaknesses in the prosecution case and the viability of any legal defences. They will go through the brief of evidence carefully and assess your prospects of success.

If you plead not guilty, the matter will be listed for a contested hearing. On this date, a magistrate will hear evidence and submissions from defence and prosecution before deciding whether you have been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

If you are found guilty, the magistrate will then impose the sentencing orders they consider appropriate in light of the seriousness of the offence and your circumstances. This may be a fine, a community service order, a good behaviour bond, or a term of imprisonment. 

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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