Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Indictment Definition:

The formal document by which the state sets out the claim that a person has committed a crime.

Related Terms: Indictable Offence, Accusation, Information

It is on the basis of an indictment that an accused person must stand trial.

An indictment will state the relevant alleged facts and set out the nature of the alleged crime.

Note these words used in the 1869 constitutional law treatise of William Forsyth:

"The indictment is, in our opinion, completely worthless, as giving the accused no notice of the offence with which he stands charged.

"The first principles of law require that the charge should be so preferred as to enable the court to see that the facts amount to a violation of the law, and the prisoner to understand what facts he is to answer or disprove."

In the USA, the indictment is the formal accusation returned by a Grand Jury, that charges a person with a felony.

It is on the basis of an indictment that an accused person must stand trial; being the accusation of the commission of a crime. It is not evidence of a crime; merely an allegation thereof, the initiating document of a criminal trial.

Justice Meredith wrote, in R v Goodfellow:

"... every indictment ought to contain a complete description of such facts and circumstances as constitute the crime without consistency or repugnancy."

In Halsbury's Laws of England:

"An indictment is a written accusation preferred before the Crown Court, signed by the proper officer of the Court, and charging one or more persons with the commission of one or more indictable offences." 

It is so essential in law that an accused person know fully the charge against him or her, so that they can prepare and face it in Court, that an error on the face or form of an indictment may lead to a successful motion by the accused to quash the indictment, thereby setting the accused free subject to the prosecutor's right, in limited cases, to correct and reissue the indictment.

But note, also, these words of Justice Melloy of the United States Court of Appeals in US v Allen:

"To be sufficient, an indictment must contain the elements of the offense charged. Where a statutory aggravating factor operates as the functional equivalent of an element, it too must be noticed in the indictment.

"Although the indictment must be a plain, concise, and definite written statement of the essential facts constituting the offense, it need not be perfect, and common sense and reason prevail over technicalities."


  • Forsyth, William, Cases and Opinions on Constitutional law and various points of English jurisprudence, collected and digested from official documents and other sources, with notes (London: Stevens and Haynes, 1869), page 458.
  • Halsbury's Laws of England, 4th Edition, Volume 11(3) (London: LexisNexis-Butterworths, 2006).
  • R v Goodfellow 11 OLR 359 (1906)
  • US v Allen, 357 F. 3d 745 (2004)

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