An action may be a crime or a delict but where your actions were trivial, a court has the discretion to decide not to prosecute or entertain a claim against you due to the de minimis non curat lex rule.
If you find yourself charged with a minor crime, for example theft of a few sweets from a shop, then the de minimis non curat lex rule (de minimis), meaning “the law does not concern itself with trifles”, may be useful to you.
De minimis is a decision to be made by the court to allow unlawful conduct to go unpunished due to its triviality. An example of such a decision is where the Appellate Division in State v Kgogong refused to convict a person of theft because the accused stole a worthless piece of paper. Another example is the case of State v Dane where a person accused of malicious damage to property was acquitted because he had merely cut a small portion of another person’s hedge.
The application of the de minimis maxim is limited with regard to statutory offences. This was discussed in the case of Director of Public Prosecutions (EC) v Klue in which the High Court overturned the Magistrate’s decision that the offence of driving a vehicle on a public road with a blood alcohol concentration exceeding the prescribed minimum was de minimis.
The High Court held in the abovementioned case that the aims and objectives of the legislation containing the offence are important and that the Road Traffic Act, in particular the provision offended, is aimed at reducing road accidents. The High Court also held that there was no room for the Magistrate to apply the de minimis maxim because the minimum amount had already been determined after careful consideration by the Legislature.
The de minimis maxim also applies to criminal assault charges and delictual claims. In regard to delictual claims, when a person’s bodily integrity has been wrongfully and intentionally infringed, he or she can have a claim for damages unless the de minimis rule applies. With regard to criminal assaults charges, a trivial assault, for example a slap on the back or a shove in a crowd, may be disregarded in terms of the de minimis rule. This will be determined based on the context of the situation and the nature of the act, especially where one is dealing with sexual assault since a mere touch can be very serious and in such circumstances the de minimis rule would not apply.
The purpose of the de minimis rule is to avoid burdening the courts with minor complaints which would result in wasted costs, resources and time. It is further intended to avoid situations where more serious crimes and delictual claims take an extended period to be dealt with due to trivial issues taking up the court’s time. This will result in the criminal justice system and the court system being brought into disrepute for not being able to deal with serious matters efficiently.
- Burchell J: Principles of Criminal Law 2006 (3rd ed) 355 – 356
- S v Kgogong 1980 (3) SA 600 (A)
- S v Dane 1957 (2) SA 472 (N)
- DPP (EC) v Klue 2003 (1) SACR 389 (E)
- Road Traffic Act 93 of 1996
 1980 (3) SA 600 (A)
 1957 (2) SA 472 (N)
 2003 (1) SACR 389 (E)
 93 of 1996
This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice.