Structure of the Courts of Scotland

The passage of the Scotland Act 1706, and thereafter, the Acts of Union 1707, has accorded Scotland with the right to maintain its own legal system separate from country. The devolution from the passage of the 1998 Scotland Act provides further legislative authority for Scotland to administer its own judicial system. In line with that, the administration of criminal justice in Scotland is handled by the Courts of Scotland, which is headed by the Lord President of the Court of Session and Lord Justice General. The Courts of Scotland handles approximately 92,000 court proceedings annually (2016-17).

Hierarchy and Structure of the Courts of Scotland

  • Justice of the Peace Courts

    The Justice of Peace Courts is the lowest tier of Scotland’s criminal court system. The court handles low impact crimes such as petty theft, breach of peace and road traffic offences. The cases are handled by appointed lay justices (between one and three, depending on location and case complexity) with the assistance of at least one legal adviser. They are authorised to impose custodial sentences not exceeding 60 days and fines not exceeding £2,500. However, Glasgow's Justice of the Peace Court, with a sitting Stipendiary Magistrate, are allowed to mete out custodial sentences of up to 12 months and fines of up to £10,000.

  • Sheriff Courts

    Sheriff Courts are the primary criminal courts in Scotland. They handle crimes which are too serious for lay justices, but not serious enough to be sent to the High Court. Depending on the crime and severity, Sheriffs may deliver a summary judgement from the bench (maximum sentence is £10,000 or 12 months imprisonment), or use the assistance a 15-person jury panel for a solemn judgement (maximum sentence is five years imprisonment). However, if a Sheriff feels the crime requires a higher level of punishment, the case can be sent to the High Court.

    The Sheriff Court in Dundee. Image courtesy of Maciej Lewandowski.

  • Sheriff Appeal Court

    The Sheriff Appeal Court presides over appeals for judgements and bail requests originating from the Sheriff Courts and Justice of the Peace Courts. The bench, consisting of up to three Sheriffs, will only hear appeals for two consecutive days every fortnight.

  • High Court of Justiciary

    The High Court of Justiciary is the highest criminal court in Scotland. It handles the most serious and complex criminal cases, such as murder, robbery and kidnapping, as well as hear appeals on judgements delivered by lower courts. There is no legal mechanism to appeal judgements for criminal cases made by this court. Judgements are delivered by a 15-person jury.

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