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In many common law jurisdictions (e.g. England and Wales, Ireland, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Australia, New Zealand), an indictable offence is an offence which can only be tried on an indictment after a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is a prima facie case to answer or by a grand jury (in contrast to a summary offence). In the United States, a crime of similar severity is a felony, although it too proceeds after an indictment.
England and Wales
In relation to England and Wales, the expression "indictable offence" means an offence which, if committed by an adult, is triable on indictment, whether it is exclusively so triable or triable either way; and the term "indictable", in its application to offences, is to be construed accordingly. In this definition, references to the way or ways 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.
An either way offence allows the defendant to elect between trial by jury on indictment in the Crown Court and summary trial in a magistrates' court. However, the election may be overruled by the magistrates' court if the facts suggest that the sentencing powers of a magistrates' court would be inadequate to reflect the seriousness of the offence.
In relation to some indictable offences, for example criminal damage, only summary trial is available unless the damage caused exceeds £5,000.
A youth court has jurisdiction to try all indictable offences with the exception of homicide and certain firearms offences, and will normally do so provided that the available sentencing power of two years detention is adequate to punish the offender if found guilty.
See section 64 of the Criminal Law Act 1977.
Grand juries were abolished in 1933.
Offences triable only on indictment
The expression indictable-only offence was defined by section 51(1) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, as originally enacted, as an offence triable only on indictment. Sections 51 and 52 of, and Schedule 3 to, that Act abolished committal proceedings for such offences and made other provisions in relation to them.
When the accused is charged with an indictable only offence, he is sent to the Crown Court for trial. The rules are different in England and Wales in respect of those under 18 years of age.
See also section 14(a) of the Criminal Law Act 1977.
Similarly in New Zealand, a rape or murder charge will be tried at the High Court, while less serious offences such as theft, will be tried at the District Court. However, the District Court can hold both jury and summary trials.
For differences between indictable offences and summary offences see summary offences.
- The Interpretation Act 1978, section 5 and Schedule 1 (in the heading "construction of certain expressions relating to offences"), as amended by section 154 of, and paragraph 169 of Schedule 7 to, the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.