Law and Forensic Medicine in Scotland

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Scotland was an independent nation state until 1707 when it became the most northerly part of the United Kingdom. Today Scotland, constitutionally, is less than a state or a province in a federal union, but retains vestiges of its ancient sovereignty by having its own legal system and separate administration. English law and Scots law are two quite separate systems—a unique constitutional phenomenon within a unitary state. Scots law is a “mixed” legal system embodying aspects of both the Romano-Germanic and Anglo-American families of legal systems. A central feature is the public prosecution of crimes under the control of the Lord Advocate and the Crown Office in Edinburgh. The hierarchy of criminal courts comprises the High Court of Justiciary, the Sheriff court, and the District court. For serious offences, criminal trial is by “solemn procedure” before a judge sitting with a jury of 15 persons whose verdict of “guilty”, “not guilty”, or “not proven” may be reached by majority. The prosecution must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt on corroborated evidence. The essential requirement for corroboration means that two pathologists must perform and sign the report on any autopsy related to criminal proceedings. The writ of habeus corpus is not operative in Scotland, but there are strict rules to prevent an accused person from languishing in prison without trial. Under solemn procedure the trial must begin within 110 days or the accused is freed with immunity from further prosecution for the crime charged. Procurators fiscal are the public prosecutors whose responsibilities include the investigation of crime and all sudden, suspicious, or unexplained deaths. There are no coroners in Scotland. Investigations are performed in private and it is uncommon for a public inquiry (“a Fatal Accident Inquiry”) to be held. A Fatal Accident Inquiry is an inquisitorial proceeding heard before a sheriff sitting without a jury. In Scotland, unlike in England, the more serious crimes are not covered by legislation. Scots law divides homicide into three classes: murder, culpable homicide (ie. murder under mitigating circumstances), and non-criminal homicide. The homicide rate is relatively low with ∼60 murders and 40 culpable homicides each year for a population of 5.12 million. The commonest methods are stabbing/cutting (40%) and hitting/kicking (20%). Only 3% are by firearms. Organised forensic medicine began with the professorships in medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh in 1806 and at Glasgow in 1839. Today forensic pathology services are funded by the central government but are based in the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, and Aberdeen. Forensic science laboratories are under the direct control of the police forces in the same four centres.

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