The presence of fault-plane reflections in seismic images, besides indicating the locations of faults, offers a possible source of information on the properties of these poorly understood zones. To better understand the physical mechanism giving rise to fault-plane reflections in compacting sedimentary basins, we numerically model the full elastic wavefield via the spectral element method (SEM) for several different fault models. Using well log data from the South Eugene Island field, offshore Louisiana, we derive empirical relationships between the elastic parameters (e.g. P-wave velocity and density) and the effective-stress along both normal compaction and unloading paths. These empirical relationships guide the numerical modelling and allow the investigation of how differences in fluid pressure modify the elastic wavefield. We choose to simulate the elastic wave equation via SEM since irregular model geometries can be accommodated and slip boundary conditions at an interface, such as a fault or fracture, are implemented naturally. The method we employ for including a slip interface retains the desirable qualities of SEM in that it is explicit in time and, therefore, does not require the inversion of a large matrix. We performa complete numerical study by forward modelling seismic shot gathers over a faulted earth model using SEM followed by seismic processing of the simulated data. With this procedure, we construct post-stack time-migrated images of the kind that are routinely interpreted in the seismic exploration industry. We dip filter the seismic images to highlight the fault-plane reflections prior to making amplitude maps along the fault plane. With these amplitude maps, we compare the reflectivity from the different fault models to diagnose which physical mechanism contributes most to observed fault reflectivity. To lend physical meaning to the properties of a locally weak fault zone characterized as a slip interface, we propose an equivalent-layer model under the assumption of weak scattering. This allows us to use the empirical relationships between density, velocity and effective stress from the South Eugene Island field to relate a slip interface to an amount of excess pore-pressure in a fault zone. ?? 2007 The Authors Journal compilation ?? 2007 RAS.