What is an absolute discharge?

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What is an absolute discharge?

In the realm of Canadian criminal law, there are terms and concepts that can often leave the general public scratching their heads. One of those terms is "absolute discharge". Despite its legalistic nature, understanding what an absolute discharge means can be crucial for those navigating the justice system. So, what is an absolute discharge and why is it relevant in the Canadian context?

At its core, an absolute discharge is a type of criminal sentence. When someone is granted an absolute discharge after pleading guilty or being found guilty of an offence, they are left without a conviction being registered against them. In other words, although the court acknowledges the guilt, it deems it in the best interest of the accused and not contrary to the public interest to not impose a conviction.

There are a few vital aspects to understand:

  • No criminal record: while the court records will show that an absolute discharge was granted, the individual will not have a criminal conviction. This distinction is crucial for employment, travel, and other activities that require background checks.
  • Automatic effect: an absolute discharge automatically takes effect. There is no probationary period or conditions attached. Once granted, it’s immediate.
  • Limited availability: not all offences are eligible for an absolute discharge, and it's typically granted at the discretion of the judge, based on the specific circumstances of the offence and the offender.


The reasons behind granting an absolute discharge can vary, but generally, it is reserved for less serious offences or situations where imposing a criminal conviction would be unduly harsh. Factors that might lead a judge to consider an absolute discharge include:

  • First-time offences.
  • Personal circumstances of the accused, such as age or health.
  • Impact of a criminal record on future prospects.
  • The nature and circumstances of the offence itself.
  • Successful completion of certain programs, such as counselling.


It is important to differentiate between an absolute discharge and its close relative, the conditional discharge. While both result in no criminal conviction if their conditions are met, a conditional discharge does impose certain conditions on the offender, often in the form of probation. If these conditions are not met the offender can be re-sentenced for the original offence.


Canada, with its focus on rehabilitation and restorative justice, has integrated the concept of absolute discharge as a means to provide a fair and balanced justice system. By allowing judges the discretion to grant such a discharge, the Canadian criminal justice system acknowledges that not every offence requires the weight and lasting impact of a criminal conviction.

The inclusion of absolute discharge in Canadian law reflects a broader understanding of criminal behaviour and its root causes. It offers a chance at redemption and an opportunity to move forward without the encumbrance of a criminal record for those deemed deserving.

Understanding the nuances of terms like absolute discharge is essential in grasping the intricacies of the Canadian criminal justice system. More than just a legal concept, the absolute discharge represents a belief in second chances and the possibility of redemption. In a society that is ever-evolving, such mechanisms remind us of the importance of balancing justice with mercy and rehabilitation.

If you have been charged with a criminal offence, contact me, Calgary criminal defence lawyer Susan Karpa for a free consultation.