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.
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.