Criminal proceedings in Scotland: 2020-2021

Statistics on criminal proceedings concluded in Scottish courts and alternative measures to prosecution issued by the police and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service are presented for the ten years from 2011-12 to 2020-21. The latest year’s data is impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This document is part of a collection

Annex C – Understanding the statistics in this bulletin and counting rules

C.1 Individual offenders may be proceeded against on more than one occasion, and within a proceeding, they may be proceeded against for more than one charge. The units of measurement used in this bulletin, which may be different to those in other criminal justice statistics publications, are:

(a) the person or company proceeded against or convicted

A person proceeded against can be defined as someone with a charge proved, those acquitted not guilty, those acquitted not proven, those where a not guilty plea was accepted and those deserted simpliciter. Where a case was deserted ‘pro loco et tempore’, or ‘not called’, they are not included here.

Also excluded are people against whom proceedings are raised but which are dropped before they reach court. This will therefore exclude those who appear on petition but are not subsequently indicted.

People are counted once for each occasion they are proceeded against. If a person is proceeded against more than once on the same day, each proceeding will be counted separately. References to ‘people’ include companies.

Where a person is proceeded against for more than one crime or offence in a single proceeding, only the main charge is counted. The main charge is the one receiving the most severe penalty (or disposal) if one or more charges are proved, and is identified using a look-up table which ranks the disposal types in order of severity. For example, custody is ranked higher than a monetary fine, so for a proceeding where there was a mixture of these two types of disposal, the main charge counted for this record would be the charge associated with the custody disposal rather than the charge related to the monetary disposal.

If two charges have the same disposal, then the charge with the lowest numbered crime code is taken as the main crime. Generally the lower the crime code, the more serious the crime would be considered to be. The lowest crime code is for murder and the highest for motor vehicle offences.

A person convicted is defined to be one who had a plea of ‘guilty’ accepted, or who was proved guilty of at least one charge within a proceeding as a result of a trial. Throughout this bulletin, the terms ‘people convicted’ and ‘convictions’ are used interchangeably. If the case does not reach the courts then the main charge within the case that reaches the furthest stage in the criminal justice system is counted e.g. if the case is disposed of via a non-court disposal by the police or COPFS.

(b) individual person

In the period covered by this bulletin, each person convicted of a crime or offence will have been assigned a unique reference number by Police Scotland. This enables all convictions relating to an individual person to be linked together, so that analysis of the number of convictions per person in any given year, and the number of their previous convictions and reconvictions can be derived. The Scottish Government publishes information on the number of previous convictions and reconvictions in the National Statistics publication Reconviction rates in Scotland.

(c) individual offences

In addition to analysing people convicted by the main charge involved, data in relation to individual charges (offences) which are proved are also available. These can be seen in Tables 4a and 4b, which show aggregate figures for charges (offences) by crime type alongside those based on the main charge.

C.2 Generally, only the initial outcome is included in the court proceedings statistics so that, for example, a person fined is regarded as fined even if he or she subsequently goes to prison in default of payment. Similarly, no account is taken of the outcome of appeals; the exception to this is for those crimes where an appeal is determined prior to publication and the conviction is quashed or the sentence is substituted.

C.3 The number of prosecutions and sentences given could be influenced by operational practices within the justice system. For example there may be times when the police report a particular offence to the procurator fiscal but, when the facts and circumstances are examined, the procurator fiscal decides to proceed with an alternative charge. There are rare occasions when such decisions are made but unfortunately, the charge is not then updated on the computerised records. There is nothing to suggest that the scale of this issue is large enough to alter the overall trends reported.

C.4 A court can impose more than one penalty in appropriate cases. For example, a fine can be imposed in addition to a more severe penalty, such as custody, although the statistics are only based on whichever penalty is deemed to be the main charge. The main additional punishments are generally disqualification from holding or obtaining a driving licence and the endorsement of a driving licence. Please note that although statistics on driving licence disqualifications are not published in this output they are available on request.

C.5 In the court proceedings statistics, the reference year used is the year in which the person is sentenced. For example if a person pleads to, or is convicted for, a charge in 2018-19, but is not sentenced until 2019-20, all events are recorded as occurring in 2019-20. The age of each person is calculated as at the date of sentence or acquittal.

C.6 The custodial sentence length for the person is the total sentence given for all charges in a proceeding.

C.7 In some cases, although the publication focuses on the main charge, one sentence can be given for all charges, or multiple charges can be served consecutively or concurrently. For example, a single ‘In Cumulo’ prison sentence can be given for multiple offences that arose from the same incident; an eighteen month sentence could consist of twelve months given for the main charge, and six months for a separate charge.

C.8 Figures for sentence lengths imposed include any element imposed for bail aggravation under section 27(1)(b) of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995, and under section 16 of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993 (where the offender committed an offence following release from custody on licence prior to the end of a previous sentence period imposed).

C.9 Aggravations can be recorded by Police Scotland or COPFS to provide additional information relating to the nature of a charge. For example, someone who commits an assault which is motivated by malice towards the victim as a result of their religion might have their offence recorded under “common assault” with an aggravation code of “religious” hatred.

C.10 The set of aggravation codes that are used on the CHS include statutory aggravations which are those introduced through legislation. Examples of statutory aggravations are:

The CHS also includes some codes that are not statutory, but are used as identifiers to highlight particular cases to the police, COPFS, or SCTS. This includes an identifier for domestic abuse, which identifies domestic abuse related charges for operational purposes, whether or not the statutory domestic abuse aggravation applies to them.

C.11 Statistics on offences with a bail aggravation recorded, which identify offences that were committed while the offender was on bail, are published under the “supporting documents” menu on the website for this publication.

C.12 Bail orders are issued at various times during the legal process. They are generally granted at an early point, often before there is a petition/complaint. Furthermore, it’s possible that an individual can receive multiple bail orders in the same case – this may be because conditions have been breached/appealed/reviewed, and a new order is subsequently issued. The combination of these events mean that there is no expectation of a direct correlation between the numbers of bail orders issued and the numbers of proceedings, although at a basic level, an increase in activity in the justice system will generally correlate with an increase in the numbers of both bail orders and proceedings.

C.13 Bail undertakings are used when a person has been charged with a crime, but where the accused is trusted to maintain good behaviour until their court appearance, and therefore is not required to be held in custody. The accused agrees that they will attend court at a specific time, and may also be held to certain conditions. An undertaking will not be granted if a person was arrested on a warrant.

Comparisons with other sources

C.14 Care should be taken when comparing different data sources relating to the criminal justice system. For example recorded crime statistics count crimes and offences at the time that they came to the attention of Police Scotland while criminal proceedings statistics report on cases which have concluded in court. This means that a crime may be recorded by the police in one year and court proceedings concluded in a subsequent year. In addition, a person may be proceeded against for more than one crime, or a set of crimes with more than one victim, in a proceeding, but only the main charge is counted in these court proceedings statistics. There is also the possibility that the crime recorded by the police may be altered in the course of judicial proceedings. There are also some offences included in this bulletin, such as failure to pay a television licence, which are reported directly to the procurator fiscal by specialist reporting agencies such as TV Licensing and therefore are not included in the police recorded crime statistics.

C.15 COPFS publish a number of outputs, including annual figures relating to the number of cases reported to procurators fiscal each year, and the number of cases disposed of each year, by type of disposal. More information is available in the COPFS Performance Statistics. Some of these figures are presented in Table 1 clearly marked as cases. Each COPFS case includes at least one charge, similar to criminal proceedings, but may involve more than one offender. The criminal proceedings statistics count individual people disposed of. It is not currently possible to extract information on some of the other COPFS non-court disposals from the CHS e.g. fiscal work orders and no actions.

C.16 COPFS also publish charge-level statistics in publications such as Hate Crime in Scotland and Domestic Abuse Charges reported to COPFS, both found on the COPFS statistics page. The counting base for these statistics are at individual charge level rather than case level. As Criminal Proceedings statistics only measure the main charge in a case it would be expected that COPFS figures would be higher. There will also be timing differences since COPFS figures are based on the year of the report to COPFS, while the Criminal Proceedings figures are based on the year a person is sentenced.

C.17 Custodial disposals are counted differently from the direct sentenced prison receptions (excluding fine default receptions) published in the Scottish Government Prison Statistics publications. Most of this difference is because a person given custodial sentences for separate sets of proceedings on the same day is counted as two custodial sentences in the criminal proceedings statistics, but only one direct sentence reception in the prison statistics.

C.18 Community sentence disposals are also counted on a slightly different basis from the statistics in Criminal Justice Social Work (CJSW) publications. The differences between the two sources include:

  • Where two or more identical orders have been issued to run concurrently, the CJSW information only counts one order, whereas the criminal proceedings statistics will count more than one, although only one may be shown for a person where the table only counts the main disposal.
  • Criminal proceedings data counts the penalty of first disposal whereas CJSW data includes orders given subsequent to the initial disposal (e.g. as a result of fine default, following an appeal etc.). Similarly, orders such as Community Payback Orders show a variation relative to these statistics in the CJSW and other sources; this may be because they will sometimes be withdrawn and reissued in particular circumstances – we do not count these additional impositions here.
  • The date on which the order is deemed to be given can vary between the two collections, particularly where the penalty is given on a different date from the plea/verdict.

C.19 Please note that statistics on Restriction of Liberty Orders (RLOs) will not match statistics published by G4S, the Scottish Government’s contractor for electronic monitoring. This is because statistics in this publication are representative of the main charge in a set of proceedings and will mask RLOs issued for secondary charges. By contrast, the G4S figures count all RLOs issued by the courts relating to all charges.

Comparisons with statistics from other countries

C.20 Direct comparisons with statistics from other countries should be taken with care as legal frameworks and legislation for criminal offences differ. In addition, data collection techniques and recording definitions will vary considerably. For example, the Ministry of Justice’s Criminal court statistics quarterly are based on information directly captured from the court’s operational databases and are typically over a year to the latest quarter. By contrast these statistics for Scotland are from the CHS, a police database that collates information from COPFS and the SCTS, and are published on a financial year basis.

C.21 Despite international differences, Criminal Proceedings statistics are included in international reports collated by the United Nations and Eurostat such as:



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