The courts in Scotland

Scotland has its own unique legal system. The different types of court in Scotland reflect the seriousness of crimes. Murder and violent crime are always the most serious offences.

Showing three Scottish Courts and the types of crimes tried there.

For the more serious crimes, juries composed of members of the public chosen at random are formed to decide on the guilt of the accused. It is the job of The Crown or the prosecution to prove that the defendant is guilty. A defendant is innocent until proven guilty. In order to prove guilt, the jury must return a majority verdict. There are fifteen members on a jury in Scotland.

Scottish criminal trial courts can deliver one of three possible verdicts - one of conviction (‘guilty’) and two of acquittal (‘not proven’ and ‘not guilty’).

A ‘guilty’ verdict means that the jury, after listening to and studying the evidence has found the defendant to be guilty ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ of the crime he/she is charged with. The defendant is punished accordingly.

A ‘not guilty’ verdict means that the jury, after listening to and studying the evidence, has found the defendant to be not guilty of the crime he/she is charged with and they can walk free.

The ‘not proven’ verdict is unique to Scotland and has in the past been controversial. Not proven means that the jury believes the accused may have committed the crime but does not have sufficient evidence beyond all reasonable doubt to return a guilty verdict.

The High Court of Justiciary

A lawyer addressing a jury in court
A lawyer addressing a jury in court

The High Court is Scotland's highest criminal court. Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen have permanent High Court buildings. The High Court deals with the most serious crimes such as treason, murder, rape, armed robbery, drug trafficking and sexual offences involving children. Trials in the High Court can be lengthy. Cases can often take weeks or sometimes months as there can often be a great deal of witnesses and evidence to be heard.

Sheriff Courts

There are sheriff courts throughout Scotland to deal with crimes that are too serious for a Justice of the Peace Court but not serious enough for a High Court. However on the basis of new evidence being provided, a Sheriff can refer the case to the High Court.

Justice of the Peace Courts

As the lowest level of the criminal court system, Justice of the Peace Courts handle much less serious crimes such as breach of the peace, minor assaults, road traffic offences and petty theft. Cases are dealt with by a bench of one or more lay justices who have no legal qualifications but take advice from a legal advisor. Lay justices can impose custodial sentences of up to 60 days and fines of up to £2,500. Glasgow's Justice of the Peace Court is the only one where a legally qualified Stipendiary Magistrate can sit. The maximum sentence that he or she can impose is 12 months imprisonment or a fine not exceeding £10,000.

The UK Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the UK. The final court of appeal, the Supreme Court, plays an important role in the development of United Kingdom law. As an appeal court, The Supreme Court cannot consider a case unless a relevant order has been made in a lower court.

The Supreme Court:

  • is the final court of appeal for all United Kingdom civil cases, and criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • hears appeals on arguable points of law of general public importance
  • concentrates on cases of the greatest public and constitutional importance
  • maintains and develops the role of the highest court in the United Kingdom as a leader in the common law world

The Supreme Court hears appeals from the following courts in each jurisdiction:

England and Wales

  • Court of Appeal, Civil Division
  • Court of Appeal, Criminal Division
  • (in some limited cases) the High Court

Scotland

  • The Court of Session

Northern Ireland

  • The Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland
  • (in some limited cases) the High Court