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Understanding the Types of Criminal Law

Criminal law is a system of legal rules that are designed to prohibit and punish criminal behaviour. It’s created by legislative bodies within governments to protect their citizens.

During a court trial, the legal system will place a person under persecution under scrutiny by the respective country’s criminal law.


Criminal law and civil law are different types of law. Civil law refers to resolving controversies and financial responsibilities among two parties often considered a tort. Criminal law, on the other hand, refers to the state potentially forfeiting the liberty and property of an individual.

Criminal law covers acts and behaviours that violate international and national laws. In any criminal prosecution, the State or the Commonwealth is the plaintiff and the individual stands as the defendant. Essentially, this form of law punishes people for behaviours that violate societal standards of morality.

Criminal law covers a wide range of offences from minor infractions up to serious crimes against humanity. The grading of criminal offences can vary from state to state and it’s important to understand the grading of the laws in your area.

If you need legal advice or consultation, consult an experienced criminal lawyer to ensure you’re legally covered. Specific laws and regulations will depend greatly on the crime involved – take this LY Lawyers overview of breaking and entering for an example.

That said, let’s look into all there is to know about criminal law.

Types of Crimes

As you’ll learn in law school, there are three main types of crimes: summary offences, minor indictable offences, and major indictable offences.

Summary Offences

Summary offences, also known as common offences, are minor offences that are less severe than indictable offences. There are fewer penalties involved in this type of offence.

Examples of this form of crime include misdemeanour when driving, causing a disturbance, acts of dishonesty involving $2,500 or less, trespassing, and drug possession, among others.

In Australia, the maximum fine is less than $120,000 and the defendant is not punishable by imprisonment.

Minor Indictable Offences

Minor indictable offences are dealt with in the Magistrates Court and are prosecuted by a member of the police force. The defendant may also request a jury trial for this type of offence.

Examples include destruction of property not more than $30,000, indecent assault, theft, recklessly causing harm, indecent assault, and dishonesty of not more than $30,000.

The maximum penalty in Australia is 5 years imprisonment and a fine of up to $120,000.

Major Indictable Offences

A major indictable offence is more severe than a minor one. If a criminal act is not a minor indictable offence or a summary offence, it’s automatically considered a major indictable offence in the eyes of the law.

These are heard in the District Court, where the trial will have a jury, and it’s prosecuted by a superior court, either the District or Supreme court. A jury trial is also necessary, as mandated by the law.

Examples include treason, murder, rape, aggravated sexual assault resulting in bodily harm, aggravated kidnapping for ransom, and arson and property damage of more than $30,000.


Before a defendant goes to court, a committal process and hearing are conducted to determine whether there’s enough evidence to bring this to the superior court.

Youth Offences

Crime conducted by persons under 18 years old is considered a “youthful offender”. This type of crime is dealt with at a conference, by the Youth Court, or by caution.

If the gravity of the offence is major, such as murder, such cases will be brought to the Supreme Court.

Principles in Criminal Law

The basis of criminal law is that the State has to prove that the defendant committed an act that violated criminal law.

Before rendering a decision and sentencing the defendant, the jury and magistrate judge must have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to impose the guilty verdict.

Besides that, there are other principles that the jury and judge have to consider:

  • Burden of proof: If the defendant is charged with manslaughter, the prosecution has to prove that the defendant murdered someone. The burden of proof lies on the prosecution throughout the entire process until it’s handed to the jury in a criminal trial.
  • Presumption of innocence: The principle establishes that individuals are innocent until proven guilty through legal proceedings where they’ve been given the chance to represent themselves.
  • Double jeopardy: if a jury acquits someone, they cannot be tried again by the same charges. The prosecution can appeal if there was an error that resulted in the acquittal, but this means that double jeopardy won’t apply to the defendant.
  • Right to remain silent: defendants have the right not to testify. This is a good way to avoid self-incrimination, which can lead to a conviction even if there’s no evidence against them.

If the defendant is found not guilty, they’re acquitted.

If he/she is adjudicated guilty, he/she may be sentenced to a variety of criminal penalties.

Elements of a Crime

For an act to be considered a crime, there have to be two core elements: conduct and mens rea.

  • Conduct: The actus reus, or the guilty act. This is the actual action that’s illegal.
  • Mens rea: this is the guilty mind where someone has to intend to violate a rule before they’re charged with criminal law. Intent refers to what was in the defendant’s mind when he/she committed an offence.

Without these elements, the prosecution may not have a case against the defendant. They won’t be able to hold or convict that person in court.

However, there are some exceptions to this rule.

  • Strict liability offences: this refers to crimes where the actus reus and mens rea aren’t necessary for conviction. The State only needs to prove that the defendant engaged in certain prohibited conduct.

Strict liability crimes are typically minor in nature and fall within the purview of government regulations. They may be invoked even if the accused didn’t intend to break the law, but did so in a careless manner, such as speeding or selling alcohol to minors.

  • Ancillary criminal responsibility: Some people are accessories to crimes or co-perpetrators. They may take part in the crime but don’t do the actual acts, so they can be charged for their participation.
  • Attempts and conspiracy: It’s possible to be charged with an attempt for a crime even if the outcome wasn’t successful. Moreover, there’s also a punishment if the defendant conspired with another to commit a crime, but they didn’t take any attempts to do so.

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