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In the common law legal system, an indictment is a formal charge of having committed a serious criminal offense. In those jurisdictions which retain the concept of a felony, the serious crime offence would be a felony; those jurisdictions which have abolished the concept of a felony often substitute instead the concept of an indictable offence, i.e. an offence which requires an indictment. Traditionally an indictment was handed down by a grand jury, but most common law jurisdictions (with the exception of those in the United States) have abolished grand juries.
In Australia, an indictment is issued by government official (the Attorney-General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, or one of their subordinates). A magistrate then holds a committal hearing, which decides whether the evidence is serious enough to commit the person to trial.
In England and Wales (except in private prosecutions by individuals) an indictment is issued by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on behalf of the Crown, i.e. the monarch, presently Queen Elizabeth II--who is theoretically the plaintiff in all public prosecutions under English law. This is why a public prosecution of a man called Mr. Smith would be referred to as "R v Smith" (short for "Regina versus Smith", Regina being Latin for Queen). The head of the CPS is the Director of Public Prosecutions.
In US jurisdictions retaining the grand jury, a charge issued by the prosecutor without presentment of the case to a grand jury (as for misdemeanor offenses) is usually called an information or accusation to distinguish it from a grand jury indictment. The substance of an indictment or other charging instrument is usually the same, regardless of the jurisdiction: it consists of a short and plain statement of the time, place and manner in which the defendant is alleged to have committed the offense. Each offense is usually set out in a separate count. Some indictments for complex crimes, particularly those involving conspiracy or numerous counts, can run to hundreds of pages, but many indictments, even for crimes as serious as murder, consist of a single sheet of paper.
Indictable offences are normally tried by jury, unless the accused waives the right to a jury trial. In common law systems, the accused is not normally entitled to a jury trial if the offence charged does not require an indictment; the main exception here is again the US, where the Sixth Amendment mandates jury trial of right for any criminal offence punishable by imprisonment for more than six months. Notwithstanding the existence of the right to jury trial, the vast majority of criminal cases in the US are resolved by the plea bargaining process.
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