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The Criminal Justice System in Scotland: Key Players and Procedures

The Criminal Justice System in Scotland: Key Players and Procedures

The criminal justice system in Scotland is designed to maintain law and order, protect the public, and ensure that justice is done when laws are broken. Understanding the key players and the procedures involved can help demystify the process. This article provides a straightforward overview of the Scottish criminal justice system.

Key Players in the Scottish Criminal Justice System

Police Scotland

Police Scotland is responsible for investigating crimes, gathering evidence, and arresting suspects. They play a crucial role in maintaining public safety and enforcing the law. When a crime is reported, the police investigate and, if necessary, refer the case to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS).

Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS)

The COPFS is the public prosecution service in Scotland. Procurators Fiscal, who are lawyers working for the COPFS, decide whether to prosecute a case based on the evidence provided by the police. They determine if there is sufficient evidence and if proceeding is in the public interest.

Defence Solicitors

Defence solicitors represent individuals accused of crimes. They provide legal advice, represent their clients in court, and work to ensure a fair trial. They may challenge the evidence presented by the prosecution and argue on behalf of their client.

Advocates and Solicitor Advocates

Advocates (barristers in other jurisdictions) are specialist lawyers who may represent the prosecution or defence in higher courts. Solicitor Advocates are solicitors who have obtained additional qualifications to represent clients in higher courts. Both play a significant role in presenting cases and examining witnesses.

Sheriffs and Judges

Sheriffs and judges preside over court proceedings, ensure trials are conducted fairly, and make decisions on legal matters. In Sheriff Courts, sheriffs handle most criminal cases. In the High Court, more serious cases are presided over by judges.


In solemn procedures (serious criminal cases), a jury of 15 members of the public decides the guilt or innocence of the accused. They listen to the evidence, follow the judge’s instructions on the law, and deliver a verdict based on the evidence heard during the course of the trial.

Criminal Procedures in Scotland

Investigation and Arrest

The process begins when the police receive a report of a crime. They investigate by collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, and, if necessary, arresting suspects. The suspect may be released on bail or held in custody depending on the circumstances.

Reporting to the Procurator Fiscal

Once the police have completed their investigation, they submit a report to the Procurator Fiscal. The Fiscal reviews the evidence and decides whether to prosecute, issue a warning, or take no further action.

Prosecution Decision

If the Procurator Fiscal decides to prosecute, they will determine whether the case will be handled through summary or solemn procedure. Summary procedure is used for less serious offences and is heard by a sheriff without a jury. Solemn procedure is used for more serious offences and involves a sheriff or judge and a jury.

Court Proceedings

The accused will initially appear on petition at the sheriff court. After investigation, prosecutors will require to decide; if the matter should be prosecuted, whether it should be reduced to summary proceedings or whether the case should be indicted and whether the matter should be indicted at the Sheriff Court or the High Court.  An indictment is the final document in solemn proceedings and sets out the charges the accused will face, the witnesses that the Crown will call and the labels/productions that the Crown intend to rely upon.

The indictment will also contain a date upon which the case will call in court. If the matter is to call at the Sheriff Court then the hearing is referred to as a First Diet. If the case is to call at the High Court, then the hearing is referred to as a Preliminary hearing.

Verdict and Sentencing

If the accused is found not guilty, they are free to go. If found guilty, the court will decide on an appropriate sentence. Sentences can range from fines and community service to imprisonment, depending on the severity of the crime.


Both the prosecution and defence have the right to appeal a verdict or sentence. Appeals are heard by higher courts, which can uphold, overturn, or modify the original decision.


The Scottish criminal justice system involves multiple key players, each with specific roles and responsibilities, working together to ensure justice is served. Understanding these roles and the procedures involved can help individuals navigate the system more effectively, whether they are victims, witnesses, or accused persons.

If you need any assistance and would like to discuss matters to gain a greater understanding of any element of the criminal justice system then please contact our experienced Criminal solicitors on 01259 723201 or contact and we would be delighted to assist.

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