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Criminal prosecution in Scotland

In Scotland, all crime is prosecuted by the Procurator Fiscal, who is the public prosecutor. Procurators Fiscal receive reports from the police and from non-police reporting agencies, and they decide whether or not to prosecute, having considered whether or not there is sufficient evidence to gain a conviction, and whether prosecution is in the public interest or not. He or she then decides whether the crime is serious enough to warrant 'solemn procedure' (trial by jury - see below). If it is, an 'indictment' is served on the accused. If not, then 'summary procedure' is used, beginning with the service on the accused of a 'complaint'. Almost all environmental cases in Scotland are dealt with by summary procedure.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is a non-police reporting agency, and it sends between 50 and 70 reports a year, on average, to the Procurator Fiscal recommending prosecution. SEPA works with the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to improve the prosecution of environmental crime in Scotland.

There are two levels of criminal courts that deal with environmental crime in Scotland:

  • Sheriff courts. There are over 40 sheriff courts in Scotland, with jurisdiction for civil as well as criminal matters. Criminal trials are usually heard by a sheriff sitting on his or her own - this is known as 'summary procedure', where the sheriff gives the verdict and, if necessary, imposes a sentence. For more serious cases, a sheriff sits with a jury, which gives the verdict, while the sheriff imposes any sentence - this is called 'solemn procedure'. Sheriffs' sentencing powers are more limited than those of High Court judges. Offences are usually punishable by a fine up to a specified maximum and/or a short term of imprisonment. For environmental offences, the maximum fine and prison sentence that may be imposed are specified in the relevant legislation. Imprisonment is extremely rare for environmental offences.
  • High Court of Justiciary. The High Court deals with the most serious offences; it rarely hears environmental cases. Trials are heard by a judge and a 15-person jury - i.e. always 'solemn procedure'. The jury decides whether or not the defendant is guilty of the offence, or if the case is 'not proven'. The judge decides the sentence. The legislation defines the sentencing powers of the High Court, which can include an unlimited fine or a longer prison sentence.

If the Procurator Fiscal decides that there is sufficient evidence that a crime has been committed, but that prosecution is not in the public interest, he or she can issue a 'fiscal fine' or a 'fiscal warning' as alternatives.

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