The Criminal Courts

Glasgow Sheriff Court (really)

Congratulations! You’re being prosecuted! The next question is – where?

As “master of the instance” (i.e. the body in charge of prosecuting you), the Crown gets to choose where you’ll end up in the dock. In Scotland, you don’t have the right to demand a jury trial, so you don’t get a say in this decision.

There are three types of “first instance” (non-appeal) criminal court: Justice of the Peace, Sheriff Court, and High Court of Justiciary. Let’s start at the bottom:


Justice of the Peace Court

  • Also known by its old-fashioned name “District Court”.
  • JPs are volunteer judges.
  • JPs are, generally* non-legally-qualified. They sit in court with a legally-qualified legal adviser, who provides advice as and when required (I did this job for a few months after qualifying as a solicitor, before going back to criminal defence).
    • *I do know of at least one JP who was also an Advocate, but he was very much the exception to the rule.
  • JPs’ sentencing powers are very limited. As a maximum, they can impose:
    • 60 days imprisonment
    • a fine of £2,500
  • JPs tend to deal with relatively minor summary charges, such as road traffic offences (no insurance, speeding, driving without due care and attention etc), possession of Class B and C drugs, assaults (up to “assault to injury”, but not to “assault to severe injury”, in my experience) and so on. Recently, they’ve started to get drink-driving cases in which the legal limit hasn’t been exceeded by very much.
  • JPs can remit cases to the Sheriff Court if they think their sentencing powers are inadequate for a particular case.
  • Up until the The Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 , you could find “Stipendiary Magistrates” in Glasgow JP Court (and only Glasgow, for some reason). These were legally-qualified judges, who had the same powers as a Sheriff dealing with summary cases. You don’t need to worry about “stips” any more though.


Sheriff Court

  • Presided over by a Sheriff (legally-qualified judge).
  • Sheriffs can deal with summary cases on their own, or solemn cases along with a jury of 15 people.
    • There are now dedicated summary sheriffs, who only deal with summary cases.
  • Sheriffs’ sentencing powers depend on whether they are presiding over summary or solemn proceedings:
    • Summary (maximum of):
      • 12 months’ imprisonment
      • £10,000 fine
    • Solemn (maximum of):
      • 5 years’ imprisonment
      • an unlimited fine


High Court of Justiciary

  • Presided over by Senators of the College of Justice (a.k.a. “High Court Judges”).
  • Only deals with the most serious solemn (jury) trials.
  • Based in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, but will occasionally “sit” elsewhere.
  • Only advocates and solicitor-advocates (solicitors who have been awarded higher “rights of audience”) are allowed to conduct cases in the High Court.
  • Judges’ sentencing powers are limited only by certain statutory offences that they might be dealing with.
  • The Appeal Court is part of the High Court. It hears appeals against conviction and appeals against sentence, as well as referrals from the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Edinburgh High Court
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