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Legal Glossary

In Court, many unusual words and terms may be used that you may not have heard before. The following is an A to Z list of many of the words and phrases used on a day to day basis within the court setting.

Accused

A person on trial who has been charged with breaking the law.

Adjournment

Break in court proceedings. This may be until later that day, overnight or to a completely new date.

Advocate depute

An advocate or senior Procurator Fiscal who works only for the prosecution and prosecutes in the High Court.

Affirmation

Used instead of the oath in court. It means you promise to tell the truth.

Age of Criminal Responsibility

In Scotland, children are thought to be responsible for what they do by the time they are eight.

Allegation

Something that someone says has happened, but has yet to be proved.

Appeal

Challenge to the accused's conviction and/or sentence. The prosecution can only appeal against an unduly lenient sentence.

Appear on petition

Accused's preliminary (first) appearance in court. These are held in private. The accused will be granted bail or remanded in custody.

Background report

Reports into the background of an offender, usually taken before sentencing and is usually prepared by a Social Worker or person of similar status.

Bail

When a person is released from custody by a court, they may have to agree to certain conditions before they are released. For example, not to commit any more crimes while on bail, or to interfere with, or cause alarm or distress to witnesses.

Charge

The crime the accused person is appearing in court about.

Charging the jury

The Judge's/Sheriff's legal direction to a jury in matters of law and evidence before the jury go into deliberation and decide on a verdict.

Children's Hearing

This is when the Children's Panel, family, child and other people meet to discuss the concerns about a child which have been agreed or proved at court.

Children's Hearing court case

The legal action at court when witnesses give evidence in support of, or against, the children's reporter's case which has to be proved or agreed before any children's hearing can take place.

Children's Reporter

The person who presents the children's hearing court case and requests witnesses to attend. He or she asks questions in court and look after a child's interest but do not represent the child.

Citation

A formal letter which tells a witness to attend court to give evidence at a trial. It will say where the court is, and what time and date the witness should attend.

Civil Proof

A hearing to establish the truth of a matter based on a sequence of steps or statements.

Clerk of court

The person responsible for the management of the court and jurors. The clerk is the main point of contact with the Judge/Sheriff, keeps the court papers and ensures the correct recording of all proceedings, including the verdict.

Committal for further examination

At the end of the accused's first court appearance he or she will either be granted bail or remanded in custody until full committal for trial.

Community Service Order

An alternative to imprisonment.

Complaint

A statement or document accusing someone of breaking the law.

Copy Complaint

Formal letter from the Procurator Fiscal to an accused person, telling him or her the offence he or she has been charged with and when to appear in court.

Corroboration

An accused cannot be convicted of a crime unless there is evidence from at least two independent sources that the crime was committed and that the accused was responsible for it, known as corroboration.

Court case

An individual trial or action in court.

Court familiarisation visit:

A visit to the court before the trial to allow a witness to see what a court looks like and learn more about court procedures. It can be arranged in advance of the trial through Victim Information and Advice or in Ayrshire, usually through the Witness Service.

Court Officer (also known as Bar Officer)

A person who helps the Sheriff looks after people in court and calls each witness into court. A Court Officer may also be asked to show a witness, who is giving evidence, different items of evidence, such as clothing, photographs etc.

Court police

Police Officers who work within the court and who are there to make sure that everyone in the court is well behaved and safe.

Crime/Offence

These two words have basically the same meaning. A crime or an offence is an act, attempted act or omission which is prohibited by the law and for which a punishment may be imposed.

Criminal Court Case (also known as criminal proceedings)

A legal court case or action involving crime.

Cross-examination

Being questioned by the other lawyer(s) after the person who has asked the witness to come to court.

Crown Counsel

Senior prosecutors (also called Advocates Depute), who decide whether a criminal prosecution should take place, against whom and on what charges.

Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS)

COPFS is responsible for the prosecution of crime in Scotland, the investigation of sudden or suspicious deaths and the investigation of complaints against the police.

Custody

When a person is kept in prison, unless they are in police custody, when they are kept in a police cell.

Defence lawyer/defence counsel

A lawyer who represents the accused and helps the accused in court.

Deferred sentence

After an accused has pled or has been found guilty, sentencing may be put off for a time for reasons such as good behaviour, social enquiry reports etc.

Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA)

A substance that is found in all cells in a human body. Police take samples of this by swabbing the inside of a person's mouth. The cells found in this swab can be used to identify someone.

Deserted pro loco et tempore

Trial abandoned by PF but can be heard at a later date.

Deserted simpliciter

Trial is permanently abandoned by PF.

Diet

Another word for a stage in the legal process.

Domestic Abuse Liaison Officer (DALO)

These are officers who are specially trained to deal with domestic abuse.  They work closely with other agencies to make sure that as much as possible is done to help victims.

Empanelling a jury

To select a jury from members of the public summoned for that purpose.

Evidence

What a witness says in court – it can also be things like photographs, clothes or drawings that are brought to court to show what happened.

Examination in-chief

This is the first set of questions the witness is asked by one of the lawyers in a trial. Prosecution witnesses are asked questions by the prosecutor first, defence witnesses by the defence lawyer.

Family Liaison Officer (FLO)

The specially trained police officer who acts as the contact with the police investigation and keeps families informed of developments where there has been a murder, culpable homicide or, sometimes, a road death. They may also be used in some other cases.

Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI)

A public hearing in front of a Sheriff, usually at the Sheriff Court nearest to where the death happened. The purpose of an FAI is to establish whether a death could have been prevented and whether any action is needed to protect the public from danger in the future.

First Diet

The first time a solemn case is called in court.

Forensic evidence

The scientific evidence collected from a victim, a crime scene and others, such as fingerprints and DNA. Samples may be gathered from a victim by 'forensic examination'.

Full committal

The second appearance by the accused in court (if they were remanded in custody). It takes place in private. It is held to confirm that the accused should be brought to trial. The accused will be granted bail or remanded in custody.

Guilty

This means that the evidence has been enough to prove 'beyond reasonable doubt' that the accused person committed the crime or part of the crime. The Judge will then be asked to consider any sentence or punishment.

Hearing

Any time that part of the trial takes place in a court. There can be several hearings in the course of a trial.

Home Detention Curfew

A form of early release on licence from prison. Offenders are subject to curfew conditions and are monitored by an electronic device sometimes known as a tag.

Identification

When a witness points out the person he or she has been talking about – this sometimes happens before the court case starts or it can happen in court.

Indictment

A court document in the High court or Sheriff and Jury court which describes the crime that has led to the accused appearing in court.

Intermediate Diet

Date set prior to summary trial to check the state of preparation in the case, to check if accused still pleads not guilty and to see if evidence can be agreed to save witnesses attending court for a trial.

Judge

The person in charge of a trial in the High Court and in control of what happens in the courtroom. The Judge decides on the sentence if the accused has been found guilty.

Jury

Fifteen men and women (jurors) who listen to the evidence and decide if the accused is guilty or not. There isn't always a jury (in some cases – called summary proceedings – a Sheriff hears the evidence and decides on the verdict).

Justice of the Peace

A person, not necessarily  legally qualified, who hears criminal cases in a local Justice of the Peace court.

Lawyer

A person qualified to give advice about the law.

Licence

When an offender is released from prison before the end of his or her sentence, the licence sets out the conditions of behaviour which must be met.

Lord Advocate

Scotland's senior prosecutor with overall responsibility for prosecuting crime.

Macer

Officer of High Court who attends to the Judge and assists with witnesses and productions in a trial.

Notional trial

A case brought to court when there is a problem regarding witnesses or evidence and is debated between interested parties before further diets are arranged. It is usually held without witnesses being present although this is not always the case.

Not proven/not guilty

Not proven or not guilty means there was not enough evidence to prove the case 'beyond reasonable doubt', or that there were other special reasons why the accused was not found guilty. Both these verdicts have the same effect and mean that the accused will be free to leave the court and cannot be tried again for the same offence.

Oath

The religious promise a witness makes that he or she will tell the truth when they give evidence in court.

Parole

When a long term prisoner is let out of jail before the end of the sentence. The prisoner is still under supervision.

Petition

The first document which sets out the charge(s) against the accused and starts the formal court process.

Plea

The answer the accused gives to the court at the beginning of court proceedings when he or she is asked if he or she is guilty or not guilty.

Pleading Diet

The first time a summary case is brought before the court and gives the accused person a chance to plead guilty or not guilty. If the plea is not guilty, a trial will be arranged.

Plea in mitigation

Any factors that the accused's lawyer thinks should be taken into account before sentence is passed.

Precognition Interview

An interview of a witness by the Procurator Fiscal or defence lawyer(s) to help them prepare before the court case. It is part of the investigation process and does not necessarily mean that a prosecution will follow. It may be possible to have someone with you during the interview (ask the person who invites you for interview before the date of the meeting). The person cannot be another witness in the case, and they cannot answer for you. The interview can be arranged at a time and place of your choosing.

Proceedings/Court Proceedings

General term for the court process.

Procurator Fiscal (PF)

Often just called the Fiscal. The Procurator Fiscal is the public prosecutor in Scotland. The PF is in charge of deciding whether someone should be prosecuted and what court the case should be heard in.

Productions

Any item relating to a specific crime which can be shown in court as evidence, such as letters or clothes.

Prosecution

Taking legal action against someone and bringing a case to court. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is responsible for the prosecution of crime in Scotland, the investigation of sudden or suspicious deaths and the investigation of complaints against the police

Public Interest

The Procurator Fiscal makes decisions based on what is best for the public in general, not just the victim of the crime. The PF will look at all the circumstances including the severity of the offence. The PF will also take into account the interests of the victim, the effect of prosecution on the accused and the local community and general public opinion.

Release on Undertaking

After the police arrest someone for a fairly serious crime, they may release him or her from the police station if the person signs a document undertaking, (or promising) to come to court on the date the police give them. They must promise to behave, and not to commit any other crimes. Often called 'police bail'.

Remand or remanded in custody

When a person is kept in a police cell or prison before a court appearance.

Sentence

The punishment given to the accused after being found guilty.

Sentence discount

When the Judge/Sheriff reduces the length of sentence because the accused has pled guilty at an early stage in the proceedings. Any discount should be stated in court.

Sheriff

The name for a Judge in the Sheriff Court. The Sheriff is in charge of all court proceedings and is an expert in the law. He or she will ensure everything is done fairly within the law and that the court rules and legal proceedings are followed. They also have a duty to protect the interests of all the people involved in the case including the witnesses.

Social Enquiry Reports

When a Judge/Sheriff wants to know more about an accused person, they will ask for a social enquiry report. If a person is going to jail for the first time, the court must have a social enquiry report.

Social worker

A trained person who works with children and adults within the court setting, if needed.

Solemn case/procedure

When a trial takes place in front of a jury. These cases can take place in the High Court or the Sheriff Court.

Special measures

Different ways to help a child witness or vulnerable adult witness give evidence – e.g. a TV link or a screen.

Statement

A written note or recording made by the police of what the witness has said.

Summary procedure

Criminal cases where there is no jury. It is the Sheriff or Justice of the Peace who makes the decision. These cases can take place in the Sheriff or Justice of the Peace court.

Summons

An official order to go to court.

Supervision

A prisoner can be released on a licence with specific conditions attached and such conditions will be supervised by the appropriate authority.

Trial

The legal process when witnesses are cited to attend court to give evidence.

Undertaking

Often called 'police bail'. After the police arrest someone they may release them from the police station if the person signs a document undertaking (promising) to come to court on the date the police have given them. They must agree to other conditions such as not committing any other crimes.

Verdict

The decision reached at the end of a trial (guilty, not guilty or not proven).

Victim Information and Advice Service (VIA)

Part of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. VIA staff provide victims, witnesses and bereaved relatives in certain crimes with information about the court case and can put them in touch with support organisations.

Victim Statement

A written statement which allows victims or, in some cases, their relatives to tell the court how the crime has affected them.

Victim Support Scotland (VSS)

Provides practical and emotional support for victims of crime and their families, regardless of whether they report the crime and/or there is a court case.

Warrant

A warrant is a document from the court, allowing the police to take certain actions. An arrest warrant allows the police to arrest someone, and take them to court.

Witness

A person who has information about something and may have to tell the court about it.

Witness Service

The Witness Service is part of VSS and is there to provide practical and emotional support to victims, witnesses and their families at court. Every Sheriff Court and High Court in Scotland has a Witness Service.

We hope you find this glossary helpful. It will give you a better understanding of words and terms used within the court setting, and indeed, may help you to understand the process to a much higher degree.

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