Attending a Criminal Court

Where will the case be heard?

There are three courts which can hear criminal cases in Scotland.

The High Court hears the most serious cases including all cases of rape and murder. There are no limits on the length of prison sentences, or the amount of any fine the High Court may impose.

The Sheriff Court can hear all other criminal cases. These cases are dealt with by solemn procedure or summary procedure. In solemn procedure, the court can sentence an accused to a period of up to five years in prison or impose a fine of any amount. In summary procedure, the court can sentence an accused to a maximum period of twelve months and the maximum fine is £10,000.

The Justice of the Peace Court hears minor summary cases. The Justice of the Peace can sentence an accused to a period of up to sixty days in prison or impose a fine of up to £2500.

The Procurator Fiscal decides which court the case will be heard in. Generally cases in the Sheriff Court or the Justice of the Peace Court are held in the court closest to where the crime was committed. High Court cases are generally heard in the High Court buildings in Edinburgh or Glasgow or within dedicated premises at Aberdeen. In practice the High Court may also sit in a suitable sheriff court building in a town or city near where the crime happened.

For more information about the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland please visit

Procedures in a Criminal Court

Who’s who in court?

Judge, Sheriff, Justice of the Peace

A Judge, Sheriff or Justice of the Peace makes sure that the law is complied with and is responsible for sentencing an accused following conviction.

The Judge, Sheriff or Justice of the Peace normally sits at the head of the courtroom on a raised platform commonly known as the Bench.

The Judge or Sheriff may sit with or without a jury, depending on the seriousness of the case and the procedure being adopted. The Justice of the Peace will always sit without a jury.

The Prosecutor

In the courtroom the prosecutor presents the evidence in the case against the person charged with the crime. This is done by the Lord Advocate or an advocate depute in the High Court. The local Procurator Fiscal or one of the deputes does this in the sheriff court and the Justice of the Peace Court.

The Accused

The person who has been charged with the crime is commonly known as “the accused”.

The Accused’s Solicitor

Accused persons may represent themselves or nominate a solicitor to represent them in court. The accused’s solicitor will normally sit in the well of the court alongside the prosecutor and the clerk of court, facing the bench.

Court officials

The clerk of court, who is an employee of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS), calls the case, records the court’s proceedings and gives advice on court procedures. However, in the sheriff court and High Court, the clerk, who normally sits at the table in front of the judge facing into the courtroom is not legally qualified and cannot give legal advice. The clerk of court will issue and sign any relevant documentation which includes authorising the imprisonment or release of the accused.

In Justice of the Peace Courts the clerk of court, also an SCTS employee, is legally qualified and performs the same functions as the clerk of court in the sheriff court. In addition they record evidence in trials and may provide advice to a Justice both before and after conviction.

The court officer, or macer in the High Court, calls the accused and any witnesses into the courtroom. This officer will show the accused where to sit or stand and helps keep order in the courtroom.

Criminal Court Procedures

Making a plea

At the start of a case the accused is asked to plead to the charge or charges they face. If the plea is not guilty, a date will be fixed for a trial when evidence in the case will be heard. This date may be several weeks ahead. The accused can plead guilty to the charges at any stage in the proceedings.

Where the accused pleads not guilty a hearing, in summary cases called an intermediate diet, is set down a couple of weeks before the trial. This is to confirm that the trial is ready to go ahead on the allocated date. If for any reason the trial cannot go ahead as planned, a new date may be fixed at this stage.

The trial

At the trial, where the accused still wishes to plead not guilty to the offence, both the prosecutor and the accused can call witnesses to give evidence. Sometimes the trial cannot go ahead on the arranged day. This can happen for a number of reasons, many of which are outwith the court’s control, for example where a witness or the accused person falls ill.

After all the evidence has been presented by both the prosecutor and the defence, a decision is taken on the guilt of the accused. In a jury trial, where 15 people hear the evidence, the jury makes this decision. This happens in High Court cases and in solemn cases in the sheriff court. In all other trials the sheriff or Justice of the Peace makes that decision on the basis of the evidence which has been presented.

The Sentence

If the accused has pled guilty, or has been found guilty after the trial, the court will consider the question of sentence. This might not happen on the same day. The case might be continued for several weeks for a number of reasons, for example, so that the court can ask for background reports. These reports will provide the court with additional information on the offender which will help when deciding on the most appropriate method of dealing with the case. Where a case is continued, the court will decide whether the accused is to be detained in custody, released on bail or allowed to remain at liberty, with no conditions attached.

Various sentences can be imposed by the court. These may include a sentence of imprisonment, the imposition of a fine or the issue of a community payback order, a restriction of liberty order or a drug treatment and testing order. More information about how a judge decides a sentence, and what sentences can be given in Scotland, is available on the Scottish Sentencing Council website


Criminal Appeals

In all criminal cases, if the accused feels that part of the trial was unfair or that the sentence was unduly harsh, he/she can appeal to the High Court of Justiciary. The prosecutor can also appeal if they believe the sentence was too lenient. There are time limits which apply. It may be some time before the appeal can be heard and the accused may be released on bail pending the appeal or may remain in custody while the appeal is being dealt with. This is at the discretion of the Appeal Court.