Legal Talk – You have been accused of an offence

There are certain notifications that can be sent to a person, who allegedly committed an offence (“the accused”), and it is of utmost importance to understand what these different notifications mean. These notifications will inform the accused of the charge made against him/her and that s/he has to appear in court on a certain date. Ignoring these notifications will have serious consequences such as having a criminal record or ending up in prison.

How will an accused know if a charge, of allegedly committing an offence, has been made against him/her?

An accused will be informed that s/he will be charged by receiving a summons or a written notice informing him/her to appear in court on a specific day and time. An accused can also be arrested and kept in custody until his/her court appearance.

What is a summons?

  • A summons is a document which informs an accused of the charge against him/her and will order the accused to appear in court.
  • The summons will be issued by the clerk of the court and delivered to the accused by someone who is authorised to do so, such as a police officer.
  • The summons must be delivered at least 14 days before the criminal trial.
  • A prosecutor can decide if the summons will include the option of an admission of guilt fine. An admission of guilt fine may be included in the summons only in circumstances where the prosecutor is of the opinion that a court will not grant a fine that is more than R10 000.00 for the relevant charge.
  • A summons will usually be given in cases where the accused is not going to be arrested and if the prosecutor believes that the accused will:
    • appear in court as ordered by the summons;
    • not interfere with the police officer’s investigations; or
    • not try to influence any State witnesses that might be used in the criminal trial.

What is a written notice?

  • A written notice is a document informing the accused to appear in court in respect of a charge and including an option of an admission of guilt fine.
  • A police officer will issue a written notice if s/he is of the opinion that a court will not grant a fine that is more than R5 000.00 for the relevant criminal charge.
  • The written notice will be issued by a police officer and given directly to the accused.
  • A written notice will usually be given in minor offences, such as where a police officer stops a driver of a motor vehicle for exceeding the speed limit.

What should an accused do after receiving a summons or written notice?

  • An accused has the option to either appear in court or pay the admission of guilt fine.
  • If the accused pays the admission of guilt fine, s/he does not have to appear in court.
  • An admission of guilt fine can be paid before appearing in court at the clerk of the relevant court or the police station.

What will happen if an accused does not appear in court?

If an accused fails to appear in court on the specified date and time, a warrant of arrest (a document that authorises the arrest of the accused) will be issued by the court. Failure to appear in court without a reasonable excuse, such as being sick in hospital, is an offence and the accused can be given a fine of R300.00 or imprisonment for a period of 3 months.

What are the consequences of paying an admission of guilt fine?

If an accused pays an admission of guilt fine, s/he would be considered to be guilty of the charge. This will lead to the accused having a criminal record.

Are there instances where the payment of a fine will not lead to a criminal record?

  • Yes, a criminal record will not be obtained in the following instances:
    • AARTO– the Administrative Adjudication of Road Traffic Offences Act 46 of 1998 (“AARTO”) provides that an accused will not get a criminal record when paying a fine in terms of AARTO.
    • Notice of intention to prosecute in terms of section 341 of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977– the purpose of this notice is to inform an accused that s/he might be prosecuted for a charge, unless s/he pays a fine within 30 days after receiving the notice. If the fine is not paid, a summons will be issued and prosecution will continue. This notice will inform an accused that s/he contravened a minor criminal offence, such as exceeding the speed limit or driving a motor vehicle in place where it may not be driven.

Can a person clear his/her criminal record?

  • Yes, a person can apply for his/her criminal record to be cleared (expunged) after a period of 10 years from the date of conviction. A person can only apply for clearance if s/he was given a specific sentence (punishment), for example, a fine that is less than R20 000.00 without the option to go to jail.


Who is the accused?
The accused is the person that was charged for allegedly committing an offence, such as assault or theft.

Who is the prosecutor?
A prosecutor is the person who acts on behalf of the State when charges are made against an accused by the State. The purpose of the prosecutor is to lead the evidence in the criminal trial in order to prove the guilt of the accused.

Who is the investigating officer?
The investigating officer is the police officer responsible for investigating the charge made against an accused and obtaining evidence in support of that charge.

What is a charge?
It is a formal allegation that is made about an accused by the State and it sets out the offence/s that were allegedly committed by the accused.

What is a conviction?
A conviction is where an accused has been found guilty by the court for committing an offence.

What is a criminal record?
A criminal record is where all the convictions of a person are listed. A conviction will remain on a person’s criminal record for a period of 10 years.