A recognizance is an acknowledgment of a legal obligation, where a person appears in court and pledges to perform or not perform a particular task. The clerk enters the recognizance into the record, and it becomes legally binding. A very common example is the release on recognizance, where a court agrees to release an accused party from custody without bail as long as the defendant agrees to return to court for a hearing.
In a recognizance, the subject indicates that he understands the nature of a legal obligation to the court. He does not have to sign any paperwork or documentation, instead appearing in court during a hearing to show that he understands the conditions set by the court. The record of the court will provide information about the hearing, and this will be used in the future if a problem develops, like an accused person failing to return to court for the actual trial.
The subject of a recognizance is making a pledge to the court to fulfill a responsibility, and the court offers a benefit, such as releasing an accused party without bail. One could consider this a debt to the court, where the subject appears in court to show that she understands the nature of the debt and is prepared to discharge it in the way set out by the court, such as attending a hearing, ceasing a particular activity, or paying a fine.
Not all legal systems accept the recognizance. If it is an option in a given court, the accused will be provided with information about it, and his lawyer may work with the court to achieve a satisfactory arrangement. This is most common with minor crimes where the stakes are low, and the court is confident that the accused will fulfill any legal obligations set out by the court. In a high profile case, bail and other measures might be required to compel the accused to abide by the court's stipulations.
This term occasionally crops up in court reports, in regions where newspapers provide information on court activities, and it may appear in other media when a court case is of particular interest. Parties released on recognizance who fail to show up for their trials can be pursued by law enforcement and brought to court. The court may assess fines and other penalties for flouting the order of the court, and the defendant is unlikely to be released on recognizance again.