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Words and meanings

Sometimes we will use legal terms and language that you may not understand. We have created this alphabetical list to explain what some of our more commonly used terms mean.

If there are words or terms you would like to see added to this page, please get in touch with COPFS and let us know.

A

Absolute discharge - Instead of sentencing an offender the court may make an order discharging him or her absolutely. This can be done where:

  • a person is convicted on Indictment of an offence (other than an offence the sentence for which is fixed by law), if it appears to the court, having regard to the circumstances including the nature of the offence and the character of the offender, that it is not appropriate to inflict punishment it may instead of sentencing him make an order discharging him or her absolutely.
  • Where a person is charged before a court of summary jurisdiction with an offence (other than an offence the sentence for which is fixed by law) and the court is satisfied that he or she committed the offence, the court, if it is of the opinion, having regard to the circumstances including the nature of the offence and the character of the offender, that it is not appropriate to inflict punishment may without proceeding to conviction make an order discharging him or her absolutely.

Accused – Refers to a person alleged to have committed a crime. The term ‘defendant’ is not used in Scotland.

Acquittal – A verdict of a jury, or a decision of a Judge, Sheriff or Justice of the Peace. It means that the accused person is not guilty or the case is not proven.

Adjournment – A break in court proceedings. This could be for lunch, overnight or to a new date.

Advocate – A lawyer who is a member of the Faculty of Advocates, or Scottish Bar. Also known as Counsel. Different advocates act for the prosecution and the defence.

Advocate depute – An experienced prosecutor who appears in the High Court. They make decisions in serious cases and Fatal Accident Inquiries. Advocate Deputes also provide advice to Procurators Fiscal on complex or sensitive legal issues.

Allegation – A claim or accusation that has been made but not yet proved.

Appeal – A challenge to a conviction and/or sentence.

B

Bail – Conditions imposed upon an accused person by the Court. An accused person may be released on standard bail or bail with special conditions, for example, a condition preventing contact with a named witness.

The accused must agree to the conditions before the court will release them on bail.

Bar officer – Also known as a court officer. A person in the Sheriff Court or the Justice of the Peace Court who escorts the Sheriff or Justice of the Peace to and from court. The Bar officer provides general assistance in court. This may include calling each witness into the Courtroom and showing witnesses pieces of evidence.

C

Charge – The crime that the accused person is alleged to have committed.

Citation – The documentation that tells a witness or juror where and when to go to court.

Court Clerk – The person who calls the case, records the court proceedings, and gives advice on court procedure.

Commissioner – Someone who hears evidence from a vulnerable or child witness in advance of a trial. This will be a Judge, Sheriff or other suitable person. The evidence will be audio and visually recorded for use at trial.

Committal for further examination – The accused’s first appearance in court in relation to solemn proceedings. The Hearing is held in private. The accused will be granted bail or remanded in custody until trial.

Community Payback Order – A sentencing option available to court upon conviction of an accused. The order can be be made for a period between 6 months and 3 years. It imposes certain requirements on an offender.

Complaint – A statement, made by a witness to the police, accusing a person of committing a crime.

Confiscation – Money or other property taken from an accused person who benefited from criminal activity.

Conviction – When a person accused of a crime pleads guilty, or the court finds them guilty after trial, they are convicted of the offence.

Copy complaint – A document served by COPFS on an accused person, detailing the crimes alleged against them and when and where to appear in court.

Corroboration – An accused person cannot be convicted in Scotland unless there is evidence from at least two separate sources. This is called corroboration.

It must be proved by corroborated evidence that both:

  • a crime known to the law of Scotland was committed
  • the accused person was responsible for the crime

Counsel – Advocates who act for the prosecution or the defence. Advocates are lawyers who are members of the Faculty of Advocates or Scottish Bar.

Court familiarisation visit – A visit to the Courtroom that takes place before a trial. It can help witnesses become more familiar and comfortable with the court.

Court officer – Also know as a Bar Officer. A person in the Sheriff Court or the Justice of the Peace Court who escorts the Sheriff or Justice of the Peace to and from court. The Court Officer provides general assistance in court. This may include calling each witness into the Courtroom and showing witnesses pieces of evidence.

In the High Court, they may be known as a Macer.

Cross-examination – First a witness is questioned by the lawyer who summoned them to court (the prosecutor or the defence). Afterwards, the opposing lawyers may question (cross-examine) them.

Crown counsel – An experienced prosecutor, also known as an Advocate Depute, who appears in the High Court.

Custody – A person is in custody when they are in prison, a young offenders’ institution, or a police cell.

D

Defence lawyer/counsel – Legal representative for the accused.

Deferred sentence – After conviction, the court my defer a case to a date in the future before imposing a final sentence on an accused. This period is normally between three and 12 months.

E

Evidence – What a witness says during a trial is evidence. Evidence can also be in the form of physical items such as documents, photographs, clothes and CCTV footage.

Examination-in-chief – The questioning by the lawyer who has asked the witness to come to court (the prosecutor or the defence). This is the first set of questions the witness is asked. After examination-in-chief the opposing lawyer then has an opportunity to cross-examine the witness.

Extended sentence – A sentence that involves time in custody followed by a period of being supervised in the community. Custody means imprisonment or being detained in a young offenders’ institution.

F

Fatal accident inquiry – A court hearing that publicly inquires into the circumstances of certain deaths. A fatal accident inquiry must be held if the death was the result of an accident at work, or happened in legal custody, for example in prison or police custody. The findings of these inquiries can help to prevent future deaths or injuries.

First calling – The first time a case is called in court.

Fiscal – See Procurator fiscal

Floating trial – A High Court or Sheriff & Jury case where the date of the trial can vary

Forensic evidence – Scientific evidence collected from a victim, an accused person, another person or from a crime scene. Examples include fingerprints, DNA, and blood samples.

Full committal – The second appearance of an accused person in court in solemn proceedings. It takes place after the accused has been remanded in custody at the committal for further examination hearing. The hearing takes place in private. Afterwards, the court may grant bail or keep the accused on remand until the trial.

G

Guilty – A verdict that means it has been proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused has committed the crime.

H

Hearing – Refers to a Court Hearing.

Home detention curfew – A form of early release from prison. If assessed as suitable by the Parole Board, it allows an offender to serve part of their custodial sentence out on licence in the community. Offenders are usually subject to conditions, for example a curfew condition monitored by an electronic tag.

I

Identification – When a victim or a witness points out the person they believe committed the crime. This can happen during the investigation stage of a case or at trial when the witness gives evidence.

Indictment – A document in solemn proceedings that sets out the charges the accused person faces.

Intestate – The term used when someone dies without making a will.

J

Judge – The expert in law who is in charge of all court proceedings in the High Court and ensures legal rules are followed. The Judge is responsible for sentencing an accused person if they are convicted.

Jury – Members of the public selected at random from the electoral register to listen to evidence in a criminal trial (High Court or Sheriff Court). After hearing the facts of the case, the Jury will be asked to reach a verdict. In criminal cases there are 15 jurors.

Juries are also required in civil cases in the Court of Session. There are 12 jurors in civil cases.

Justice of the peace – A lay magistrate who sits in the Justice of the Peace Court. Lay magistrates are local volunteers with some legal training. The Justice of the Peace Court deals with less serious crimes (summary cases).

L

Licence – An offender may be released from prison 'on licence' to serve the rest of their sentence in the community. The offender will have to follow certain conditions (rules) while on licence.

M

Macer – Otherwise known as a Court Officer - the person in the High Court who calls in the accused and any witnesses into the Courtroom. The Macer helps keep the Courtroom in order.

N

Next of kin – Nearest relative to a person.

Not guilty – A verdict of the court or a jury where the Crown has not established guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. A verdict of acquittal.

Not proven – A not proven verdict has the same impact for an accused as a verdict of not guilty. It is a verdict of acquittal and means the Crown has not proved the accused’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

O

Oath – A religious promise made by a witness or an accused to tell the truth in court when giving evidence.

Offender – Someone who has committed a crime.

P

Parole – When a long-term prisoner is released, on licence, before the end of their sentence. The offender will still be supervised by a social worker. They can be sent back to prison if they break the conditions of their licence.

Petition – In criminal cases, a petition is a legal document which sets out the first draft of charges against an accused in solemn proceedings. It starts the formal court process.

Plea – At the beginning of a criminal case, the court asks the accused if they are guilty or not guilty. The answer they give to the court is called the plea.

Police bail – When a person is in police custody accused of a crime they may be released if they sign a form known as an undertaking. Signing the form means that they agree to certain conditions imposed by the police, such as not committing further crimes. They also agree to come to court on a given date and time.

Post-mortem examination – Examination of a body to establish the cause of death.

Precognition – An interview of a witness by a procurator fiscal or defence lawyer. It helps them find out more about a crime and prepare for a court case.

Procurator fiscal – Also known as the PF or the Fiscal. Investigating agencies, such as the police, report crimes to the procurator fiscal. The procurator fiscal then makes a decision about what action to take. This includes whether to prosecute someone. Fiscals are legally qualified.

The Fiscal also deals with reports of sudden or suspicious deaths and allegations of criminal conduct on the part of police officers.

Production – An item used as evidence in a criminal trial and shown in court.

Q

Queen’s Counsel, or QC – A senior and experienced lawyer.

R

Remanded – When an accused is refused bail and held in prison awaiting trial.

Remote site – A location where a witness can give evidence by video link to a court.

S

Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) – The national organisation for Children’s Reporters. SCRA focusses on children and young people who are most at risk. Children's Reporters make decisions about the need to refer a child or young person to a Children’s Hearing.

Sentence – A decision by a Judge, Sheriff or Justice of the Peace on the outcome of a case. The sentence is given after an accused is found guilty of a charge at trial or admits guilt to a charge.

Sentence discount – Where a Sheriff or Judge applies a reduction in sentence following an early plea by the accused.

Sheriff – The name for a judge in the Sheriff Court.

Sheriff and jury – Cases that are heard before a Sheriff (judge) and Jury in the sheriff court. The majority of cases in Scotland are dealt with in the sheriff court.

Solicitor – A lawyer who is a member of the Law Society of Scotland.

Solemn case – A serious criminal case that is heard before a Judge and Jury of 15 people in the High Court, or a Sheriff and Jury of 15 people in the Sheriff Court.

Soul and conscience letter – A medical certificate or letter from a doctor explaining that a person, such as a witness, is too unwell to attend court.

Special measures – Different ways to help support vulnerable witnesses when giving evidence in court. Special measures include giving evidence from behind a screen in the Courtroom, or by a television link, or having a support person in court. All children receive special measures when giving evidence.

Statement – A written record or an audio recording of what a witness has said to the police about a criminal allegation.

Summary case – Less serious criminal cases that are heard before a Sheriff or Justice of the Peace. No jury is present.

Supervision – The local authority criminal justice services supervise prisoners released on licence.

Support person – A person who can stay with a witness when they come to court.

T

Trial – The court hearing that establishes the facts in a case by the leading of evidence. Evidence is led by the prosecution and the defence (if the defence chooses to lead evidence on behalf of the accused). A trial is heard before a Justice of the Peace or a Sheriff in summary cases, or a Sheriff or Judge and 15 Jurors in solemn cases.

U

Undertaking – When a person is in police custody accused of a crime they may be released if they sign a form known as an undertaking. Signing the form means that they agree to certain conditions imposed by the police, such as not committing further crimes. They also agree to come to court on a given date and time.

V

Verdict – The decision reached at the end of a trial by a Judge, Sheriff, Justice of the Peace or Jury – guilty, not guilty or not proven.

Victim impact statement – In solemn procedure, victims of certain crimes can provide the court with a written statement that explains how a crime has affected them. The Judge or Sheriff will take into account different factors, including the victim impact statement, when they sentence the offender.

W

Warrant – A document granted by the court, giving police officers the authority to arrest someone. For example, a warrant may be issued for the arrest of an accused person if they have failed to attend court.

Witness Service – People at the court who provide support and advice to witnesses and their families. The service is provided by Victim Support Scotland.