At MyLawQuestions, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What is an Absolute Discharge?

Terry Masters
Terry Masters

An absolute discharge is a legal term for a judicial action that nullifies the underlying basis of the case in criminal and certain types of civil actions. The actual definition of this type of discharge differs by jurisdiction. There are two common features of an absolute discharge across jurisdictions, but it has to be effective immediately and granted without condition.

In criminal cases in many jurisdictions, particularly in the U.S., an absolute discharge is a dismissal of the case that is granted by a judge to an innocent defendant who has already been found guilty. The effect of the discharge is to throw out the criminal conviction as if it had never happened. The defendant’s criminal record is wiped clean, and it is as if he was never indicted for the offense.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Certain jurisdictions define an absolute discharge in criminal cases differently. In the U.K., for instance, a defendant who is guilty can also be granted an absolute discharge by the court. The U.K. allows the court to find that a person may be guilty of an offense but that it is not in the public interest for the person to be punished for his actions.

The defining characteristic of an absolute discharge is the way the discharge goes into effect. This type of discharge provides immediate relief. It is not conditioned on a waiting period or on any conduct proscribed by the court. If the defendant must wait to have the conviction expunged or must complete an ameliorating task, such as community service, the discharge is conditional and not absolute.

An exception to the distinction between conditional and absolute discharges should be noted in certain jurisdictions that allow conditional discharges to become absolute once the conditions have been satisfied. In these instances, the jurisdiction is simply using the term absolute to mean that the conditional discharge has become a permanent discharge of the conviction because all conditions have been met. The process is still a discharge that was conditional, rather than absolute.

Certain civil actions also use this term, most notably bankruptcy cases. In a bankruptcy case, a debtor requests, and may be granted, an absolute discharge of all debts placed at issue before the court. Comparable to a discharge in a criminal action, this type of discharge would be effective immediately when the order is entered and without any condition that would effect the order’s standing going forward.

Discussion Comments


What happens, for example, if a law is broken to prevent something worse from happening? For example, restraining someone (assault) to prevent them from doing further harm.

There are situations where doing the decent thing can mean being placed in the position of having to break the law. This is not a failure of the legal system. Sometimes someone who has committed an offense, albeit for the greater good, can confess to a crime and plead guilty which leaves the court no choice but to convict. The Absolute Discharge is the court's response to this situation. It's not about giving a criminal a pat on the back. It's about acknowledging that even though a crime was committed, the defendant had no choice in the matter and acted with good intentions. Robbing someone of money and giving it to the poor does not count, but restraining a person committing an assault or who is out of control and likely to harm themselves or others does.


@Clairdelune - What happens in the case of a bankruptcy and absolute discharge makes sense to me, also. It's like they are given a second chance with no strings attached.They haven't committed a crime, really, they had some bad luck and made poor choices with their money.

I'm not really sure about absolute discharge for crimes. If they were judged guilty and then a judge declared them innocent and sent them on their way without a record, there must have been new evidence that came up to show for sure that they were innocent. Any ideas about this?


The term "an absolute discharge" is a little confusing to me. So I don't understand what kind of a criminal offense that a person could be charged and convicted of, that is then overturned by a judge and the person is found to be innocent. He is then free to go right away and all records of a crime committed are erased. Does anyone have a clue?

I can see that in a civil case like bankruptcy, someone who is found guilty might receive an absolute discharge by a judge. All his debts would be taken away and he could start over.

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • Man with hands on his hips
      Man with hands on his hips