The Criminal Justice System

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 in recent years there has been discussion about abolishing it. Not proven means there was not enough evidence to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt. It has the same effect as not guilty in that the accused is free to go.

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


  • The Court of Session

Northern Ireland

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

Scotland's Children's Hearings System

The Children's Hearings System in Scotland is unique. The system is different from juvenile justice systems elsewhere in the UK.

Under Scots law, children under the age of 12 are not held criminally responsible for their actions but can be referred to the Children's Hearings for a variety of reasons. 12-year-old children can also be dealt with by the Children's Hearings System. Those under 16 are only considered for prosecution in court for serious offences such as murder, assault that puts a life in danger or serious road traffic offences that can lead to future disqualification from driving.

Children's Panels are composed of people from all sections of the community who volunteer their services. At a children's hearing, they try to find the best solution based on improving the child's life. Across Scotland, there are around 2,500 panel members who are carefully selected and highly trained. They must demonstrate that they have the best interests of children at heart. Every children's hearing has three panel members and there must be a mix of male and female members.

Children's hearings are very different from court cases. Their most important function is deciding the best way forward for the child/young person, not whether any one is guilty or someone should be punished. The mood of the meeting is as informal as possible so that the child/young person feels comfortable and is able to share his/her thoughts and experiences with panel members.

An electronic ankle tag monitors the movement of a young offender
An electronic ankle tag monitors the movement of a young offender

The hearing will be held in the area where the child/young person lives. The child's parents are expected to attend too and can be fined if they do not. Another representative can also go along, including from the media, if it is felt that they have his or her best interests at heart. Under no circumstances can the child’s identity be disclosed.

If the panel thinks that a measure of supervision is necessary it will make a ‘Supervision Requirement’. This will allow the local authority social work department to support the child/young person at home and at school. It may also mean that it is best for the child to be taken from the family home to stay with foster parents or in a local authority or voluntary organisation care home.

Since 2004, the Antisocial Behaviour (Scotland) Act gives Children's Hearings the power to restrict a child or young person’s movement. Usually referred to as ‘tagging’, it involves the use of an electronic tag to monitor a child’s whereabouts. Other measures such as counselling will also be put in place to help the young person change their behaviour.