Category: english law vs scottish law

scottish court system

The Scottish Courts system, solemn and summary procedure

The Scottish court system is different from other countries in the UK.  Let’s take a look at the different types of courts used for prosecuting criminal offences in Scotland and what they do.

Solemn and Summary Procedure 

In Scotland, there are two ‘procedures’ for investigating and prosecuting crimes:  A solemn procedure and a summary procedure. 

A solemn procedure involves the most serious criminal cases and may lead to a trial before a judge in the High Court or a Sheriff in one of the sheriff courts.  These trials will have a jury.

A summary procedure is for less serious cases and could lead to a trial before a Sheriff or in Justice of the Peace courts.  These trials do not have a jury.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service choose whether to prosecute under solemn or summary procedure and each procedure affects the sentences courts have available to them.

Types of courts in Scotland

 The High Court 

The High Court of Justiciary is Scotland’s highest criminal court and it is both a trial court and an appeal court. 

This court has exclusive authority over the most serious of cases such as treason, murder and rape but will also hear cases of armed robbery, sexual offences involving children and drug trafficking.

There are no limits on sentences available to the High Court so they can give life prison terms and unlimited fines.  A judge and jury will hear cases in the High Court.

Sheriff Court

Scotland is split into six sheriffdoms and there are 39 courts spread across the country, with the Sheriff Appeal Court in Edinburgh.  A sheriff principal is appointed in each sheriffdom to organise court business in each of the six areas.

The Sheriff Court deals with both civil and criminal cases.

Solemn cases are led by sheriffs and summary cases are led by sheriffs and summary sheriffs.  Summary sheriffs have some of the powers of a sheriff but generally, only hear summary procedure cases.

Sheriff courts can try any case that is not exclusive to the High Court and they deal with more cases than any other court in Scotland.

Generally speaking, there are sentencing limits in Sheriff courts of up to 12 months imprisonment and up to a £10,000 fine.

When sitting for solemn cases, a sheriff court can impose a 5-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine.

When a sheriff feels that their sentencing powers are not enough, they can refer a case to the High Court for sentencing.

Justice of the Peace Courts

Justice of the Peace courts only hold summary cases and a panel of lay justices deal with these cases.

These courts generally deal with less serious cases and as the lowest level of criminal court, Justice of the peace courts have limited sentencing power. 

They can give prison sentences of up to 60 days and fines up to £2,500 unless a particular offence has a statutory higher or lower limit.

If you have been charged with a crime, call one of our expert criminal lawyers as soon as possible so we can explore your options within the Scottish court system.


Scottish criminal law vs English criminal law

England and Scotland might share the same island, but they maintain separate judicial systems derived from their independent histories. Scottish law is maintained as separate, through the 1707 Act of Union. Criminal defence lawyers need to be aware of the differences in laws between Scotland and England because it can affect a case.

English criminal law is considered part of public law – a relationship between the individual and the state, which defines acceptable codes of conduct within society.

Scottish criminal law is a hybrid common law system, sourced from the many cultural groups in its history.

As criminal law lawyers, we often encounter clients who don’t understand what differentiates these two judicial systems. Here are some legal distinctions to be mindful of.

Suspect Interviews

Both England and Scotland permit voluntary and compulsory criminal interviews. It is a good idea to have legal aid or criminal defence solicitor present for any interview.

Scottish criminal law maintains a right to remain silent, without guilt being inferred.

In England, the information provided in compulsory interviews cannot be used against the interviewee. However, there is no right to silence. Negative inferences can be drawn; an interviewee fails to reveal information or refuses to answer a question; then while in court, answers those questions or brings up information to rely on it.

Witness Statements

English criminal law permits voluntary, signed witness statements to be used as evidence in court.

Scottish criminal law treats these as having little value, and they have a more limited place. They can be used in court when the witness cannot physically be there or to show proof of earlier statements should the witness change their testimony.

However, in serious Scottish criminal law cases, witnesses can be compelled to give a “precognition” statement to assist the investigation. The witness does not retain the right to have a criminal defence lawyer present, so these statements cannot be used in court.

Evidence and Corroboration

Scotland has higher requirements for evidence than England.

English criminal law permits conviction from a single source of evidence. Scottish criminal law requires corroboration from more than one source.

This means that in Scotland, each prime fact of the case (that the crime was committed and that it was done so by the accused) must be supported by at least two, different, independent evidence sources.

This holds true, even if the accused confesses. Confessions alone are not enough to convict under Scottish criminal law. Another piece of evidence must corroborate them.

Circumstantial evidence can be used as corroborating evidence, in which case a criminal defence lawyer should be used.

Formal Caution Vs Warnings

England permits the issuance of formal cautions, as an alternative to prosecution of minor crimes. This is a written warning given by police and requires admittance of guilt. Should the person choose not to admit guilt, they are then subject to criminal prosecution.

English formal cautions can be simple or conditional. When conditional, the offender must satisfy specific conditions.

These cautions are not convictions but do become part of the criminal record.

Scottish police will issue verbal or written warnings for minor offences. They can also attach penalties which must be paid or will result in prosecution. These warnings do not become part of a criminal record.

Legal aid lawyers or criminal lawyers should be consulted in these cases since prosecution or admittance of guilt can have long-lasting consequences.

Bringing Charges

Charges brought in Scotland must include all the points of the offence committed. Criminal defence lawyers can then challenge these details during preliminary case stages.

In England, charges are briefer, with the case summary being done separately.


Scottish jury trials do not require unanimous verdicts. Criminal trial juries consist of 12-15 people. Conviction is determined by majority vote, with eight being the deciding number. Hung juries are not permitted. Scottish verdicts are either guilty (convicted), not guilty (acquitted), or not proven (an acquittal).


Scottish law permits three verdict options: “guilty”, “not guilty”, or “not proven”. The “not proven” verdict is an acquittal that acknowledges doubt of the accused’s innocence. Please consult a lawyer near you, whenever interacting with the judicial system. Even simple cases, such as warnings, can result in life-altering consequences.

Our Criminal defence solicitors

At Graham Walker Solicitors our criminal law lawyers are extremely knowledgable in the differences between English Law and Scottish Law. If you need representation, contact us today, we are available 24/7, a legal aid solicitor will answer your call.