In the realm of law, the terms acquittal and discharge represent pivotal legal outcomes, each with unique implications for the accused. While both signify the termination of legal proceedings, they diverge in terms of process, timing, and the implications they carry. In this article, we will elucidate the key differences between acquittal and discharge, shedding light on their distinct legal meanings and the circumstances under which they are invoked within the justice system.
The ordinary meaning of the word acquittal is the act of fulfilling one’s duties or a given role and obligation. Its ordinary meaning extends to the payment of one’s dept or other obligation. Now, the word acquittal when used in its legal sense implies a legal decision given by a court of competent jurisdiction to the effect that an accused person is not guilty of the offence which he has been charged with. Its import is that the accused has been officially dismissed from a charge.
On the other hand, the ordinary meaning of the word ‘discharge’ is to get an obligation accomplished or completed. It also extends to the payment of dept, to get relieved or released from a confinement or something. It follows therefore that the ordinary meaning of the both terms ‘discharge’ and ‘acquit’ can be used to the same extent. In other words, they convey the same ordinary meaning.
In the legal sense, discharge is an order of a court of competent jurisdiction for an accused person to be released on the ground that the basis of the charge against him is not substantiated. Here, the court simply strikes out the case and declare the accused discharged.
Discharge in its legal sense is also used in civil term in reference to the discharge of contractual obligation. Here, we are concerned with acquittal and discharge within its meaning in the criminal justice.
The similarity between the two terms is that their effect is to release and release the accused from the criminal charge against him, although the extent of the release in relation to the two terms differs when applied distinctly.
Differences between Acquittal and Discharge
1. The effect if an order of acquittal is permanent whereas that of discharge is temporal. This is because when an accused person is acquitted, it means that the had fully been tried by a court of competent jurisdiction and was found not guilty of the criminal charge against him. To this extent, that person can no longer be arrested and tried in the sane substance of that case, having the same element.
In fact, this is a fundamental right recognized by the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in its section 36(9). The section reads to the effect that not person who has been tried of a criminal offence by a court of competent jurisdiction shall be tried again in respect of that same offence having the same element.
This is known as the rule against double jeopardy. When a person is acquitted of a criminal charge, the person is discharged and acquitted. Such is the case of autre fois acquit. The effect is permanent; therefore he cannot be tried on that same subject matter again, as long as it has the same elements. On the other hand, the effect of an order of discharge is temporal; such accused can be rearrested and further tried on that same charge as was against him.
2. An order of acquittal is given because the accused was found not guilty, whereas the order of discharge is given because the charge of the prosecution was not substantiated. This is usually where there is no sufficient evidence pointing against the accused as having committed the offence.
An order of discharge also gives the prosecution the opportunity for further investigation of the accused on that matter. If they arrive at more evidence pointing towards the accused, the charge can be reinstituted and continued.
3. An order of acquittal is given when the court is satisfied that the prosecution has not proved the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.
On the other hand, a discharge order is given when the court observes that though the prosecution has failed to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt as required by the law, there are still circumstances or certain elements pointing against the accused but it is unsafe and for the interest of justice to neither convict nor acquit him at that point.
4. The effect of an acquittal order is that the accused is declared innocent, whereas a discharge order does not adjudge an accused to be innocent. In fact, he is still a suspect and further investigation and arrest can be made against him in respect of that subject matter.
5. Discharge can be an administrative one. It is not necessarily an order of court. For instance, while an accused person is in police custody pending investigation, bail, charge, or trial, the police administration can discharge him for want of sufficient evidence.
On the other hand, an acquittal order is strictly an order of court. Only the court can declare an accused person acquitted.
6. An accused person can be discharged before his trial commences, and even before his charges are framed, whereas an acquittal order only comes after the substance of the case has been fully tried up till the final judgment.
It is on the final judgment that acquittal can be granted if the judge deems so.
7. In a trial court, a discharge order can transcend to an acquittal order. This means that a person discharged of a criminal charge can subsequently obtain an acquittal order from the same trial court and even by way of appeal to an appellate court.
On the other hand, an acquittal order cannot be reversed or be taken aback to a mere discharge by the trial court once it has been granted. The trial court becomes functus officio upon the grant of an acquittal order, except where there is a trial de novus order from an appellate court. The reverse of an acquittal order can only be obtained by way of appeal to an appellate court.
Moreso, a person granted a discharge order can transcend it into acquittal by filing an appeal in an appellate court in that regard. The appellate court will grant such order if the accused satisfies that he is entitled to an acquittal and not just a mere discharge. This was what happened in the case of DROVE V STATE (2019). In this case, the accused was granted a discharge order by the Magistrate Court. Being dissatisfied, he appealed to the High Court. The High Court overturned the decision of the Magistrate Court and held the accused entitled to acquittal instead.
The order of acquittal is clearly to the effect that the accused is adjudged innocent by a court of competent jurisdiction. A discharge order does not adjudge an accused innocent, therefore, any circumstance that gives rise to the matter not being fully tried up to the stage of final judgment being delivered, the court would rather grant a discharge order and not acquittal.
Where the complainant or the prosecution withdraws the charge, it cannot therefore give rise to an acquittal order because the legal implication of acquittal means one having been tried and found innocent. The distinction between these two terms is a fine one. One can never be mistaken for the other.