Summary justice

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Not to be confused with formal proceedings of so-called Summary judgment (e.g. in United States courts, for civil matters where there is no dispute of material fact).

Summary justice refers to the trial and punishment of suspected offenders without recourse to a more formal and protracted trial (for example a jury trial) under the legal system. It is also a term sometimes used to describe or justify vigilantism.


Main article: Vigilante

Outside the pursuit of the formal legal order, the term is sometimes applied to punishments awarded by unauthorized persons or groups (e.g., rebels or insurgents, etc.). Such groups and vigilantes feel it is a vital weapon to uphold a specific social order.

Completely extra-legal 'justice' is called vigilante justice. The extreme, though the word is sometimes used by exaggeration for milder cases, is the Lynch mob or posse, which executes a suspect without having any legal authority to judge at all.

Emergency measures[edit]

However, even the legal authorities themselves sometimes have recourse, especially if the legal and political system are weak on checks and balances, to 'special courts', especially in regions and periods of increased insecurity, either in a legally controlled manner (emergency legislation, martial law) or improvised, as sometimes occurs in wartime or political power struggle.

Summary jurisdiction in England and Wales[edit]

Further information: summary offense

In England and Wales summary justice also refers to the system for trying and punishing offenders in the magistrates' courts.

For the purposes of jurisdiction, crimes are divided into 3 groups:

  • Serious crimes must be heard in the Crown Court, tried before judge and a jury. They are known as indictable-only offences.
  • Lesser crimes or summary offences (punishable by no more than six month's imprisonment in the case of an adult) can be heard by two or more lay magistrates (or a legally qualified district judge) sitting without a jury. 95 percent of criminal cases in England and Wales are heard like this. The Crown Court may then hear an appeal against conviction or sentence. For this purpose the Crown Court does not include a jury, but consists of a Crown Court judge and two lay magistrates (who must not be the same magistrates who originally heard the case). The Crown Court does not examine the original decision but simply rehears the case.
  • The third group can be tried before either court, and so are called either-way offences. If the defendant pleads not guilty (or does not plead) then he is asked to choose which court he wants to be tried in. However if a summary court thinks an offender deserves more punishment than it is allowed to impose, crimes in this group can be referred to the Crown Court for trial and sentence. If the defendant pleads guilty then he can be sentenced in either court.

Generally juveniles are always tried summarily even if the maximum sentence is higher than six months, unless the crime is particularly serious or they are jointly charged with an adult. When tried summarily the maximum sentence is two years.

See also[edit]