In the English common law, a felony is a crime whose punishment included not only imprisonment or death but also the forfeiture of the felon’s property in favor of the ruling monarch.
A misdemeanour can land you in prison, but it did not involve the penalty of death or the confiscation of your land and property. When the common law crimes were codified or re-stated by the legislatures, the classification of crimes into felonies and misdemeanours were retained. The distinction between a felony and a misdemeanour, however, no longer included the penalty of forfeiture of property of the felon. The codified laws provided that felonies were punishable by serving a prison term while punishment for misdemeanours does not include imprisonment.
This classification is slowly becoming less important as the terms ‘felony’, and ‘misdemeanour’ has given way to more descriptive terms to classify crimes such as ‘serious indictable offences’, indictable offences and summary offences. This classification is based on how crime is prosecuted. Indictable offences need a formal indictment, and these must be tried before a jury which can determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. An indictable offence must also be tried before a judge who determines questions of law as well as the admissibility of evidence during a formal trial.
Summary offences can be tried summarily without a formal indictment and without a jury. For example, when a motorist is caught speeding, the police officer can issue him a notice indicating the traffic offence committed; when and where it was committed; the amount of fine the motorist must pay and in which court he needs to appear if he were to contest the notice.
The motorist is given a choice to simply accept the notice and pay the fine (this means that he does not contest the police officer’s finding of guilt and accepts the fine as punishment for his crime). Or, the motorist can choose not to pay the fine and appear before a magistrate on the day indicated in the notice where he can present his evidence.
Generally, a finding of guilty by the magistrate will incur a higher fine as a penalty than if the motorist simply accepted the notice given him by the police and paid the fine summarily determined by him at the roadside. The reasoning behind this is one of cost: more expense is necessary to formally try a crime than it is to summarily punish it.
Disclaimer : This article is just a summary of the subject matter being discussed and should not be regarded as a comprehensive legal advice for you to defend yourself alone. If you are charged with criminal offences, it is recommended that you seek legal assistance from criminal lawyers.