In Scotland there are three verdicts available in criminal trials: guilty, not guilty, and not proven. In modern use there is no practical difference between not guilty and not proven: the defendant is acquitted in both cases.

Has there ever been a case where a verdict of not proven ended up having a different practical effect on the defendant than if he had been found not guilty?

2 Answers 2


There actually is a practical effect to a "not proven" v. "not guilty" verdict in Scotland, but it is mostly sociological or social in nature rather than legal. If your question is, are there future legal concerns, than no. Not proven is, to be sure, an acquittal. However, it is an acquittal that the tells the public something important: that the trier(s) of fact thought the person likely guilty. That's a fairly substantial distinction.

In Scotland, a criminal case may be decided either "in solemn procedure", which is simply the Scot term for a jury trial v. "in summary" or in "summary procedure" which is the U.S. equivalent of a bench trial. The difference between the two (and the divergence from the U.S. procedural vehicle) is that for lesser crimes the accused doesn't have an automatic right of a jury trial for any criminal matter.

In some ways this lesser included makes up for the fact that the Scottish accused is without absolute right to choose jury or bench trial, which in the U.S. can be very meaningful from a tactical perspective. Think of how important the make-up and emotional proclivities of juries are to both convictions and acquittals. A bench trial can be beneficial to the truly unlikable defendant, or in especially brutal crimes, where juries may convict out of fear or sympathy for the victim, even if the case is weak. At the same time, they may nullify the conviction for the sympathetic defendant. Juries are notoriously emotional and bias driven. Being able to choose a bench trial where the judge will follow the evidence and avoid the emotional response of a jury can be invaluable. Just as a sympathetic defendant can appeal to the emotions of the jury for acquittal or jury nullification, on the opposite spectrum.

In Scotland, lesser crimes are always (with limited exclusions) tried by a judge, while more serious allegations always (again w/ limited exclusions) get a jury trial, automatically. The defendant does not choose the type of trial he is afforded. Hence, a defense or a prosecution cannot fiddle with the balance of proof based on emotion or lack there of. They get what they get. There are various rules procedurally that differ in comparison, but since this isn't the question that is the general rule and should suffice for background.

Also hugely important is the fact that in Scotland, jurors decide a case by majority vote (like a civil trial in the U.S.); hence, there are no hung juries and they don't need a consensus. So, one way or another the verdict will be given in a Scottish criminal action. Scots also get comparatively huge juries to any other country (15 jurors) and they only need 8 in agreement to reach a verdict.

Tactically, the "not proven" is a lesser included verdict (like U.S. uses lesser included charges in cases that are weaker for the prosecution). This lesser included finding can be used by choice when the Prosecution has a sympathetic defendant or when the defendant is probably guilty or unlikable. If the jury thinks the defendant (called "accused") probably did the crime, but the prosecution has failed to prove the elements, they can/will issue a "not proven" verdict. This sends a big message. This, again, is typically only reserved for those cases when there is strong but not conclusive proof that someone committed a crime. They don't want to profess their innocence with a not guilty verdict, so they are still acquitted, but with he stigma of the "not proven" verdict attached.

Some estimates have from 1/5 to a full 1/3 of all acquittal verdicts by Scottish juries as "not proven" as opposed to "not guilty". Not proven can also be used by judges in the bench trial (summary procedure), however it's much less common. The proportion of 'not proven" acquittals in general is higher in the more severe cases; but so then are the proportion of acquittals versus convictions. These would likely be hung juries in the U.S..

Both in the "solemn" and the "summary" acquittals, not proven is interpreted as indicating that the jury or judge, respectively, is not convinced of the innocence of the accused; in fact, they may be morally or even factually convinced that the accused is guilty, but do not find the proofs sufficient for a conviction under the elements of the crime on the jury instruction/verdict form.

I look at this as similar to the adage oft used in the U.S., which is an acquittal, despite the fact that the verdict is termed "not guilty" does by no means indicate the person is in fact "not guilty", it just means the prosecution couldn't prove its case. Sociologists in the U.S., as well as legal scholars, have studied the phenomenon, and it appears that most not guilty verdicts in fact let go a guilty person. This can be intuited by the evidence the jury never saw, either by suppression from bad searches, by the exclusion of witness testimony due to procedural rules like hearsay, privilege, etc., and other forms of keeping relevant evidence from the jury to protect the rights of the accused. But in the U.S. the person can go forth and say, "Hey, I was proven not guilty!"

Scotland also has another interesting rule of criminal procedure, whereby a criminal can't be convicted without corroborated evidence. What this means is that if all the prosecution has is the victim witness, by way of proof, testifying, and no physical or corroboration testimony, Scottish law requires acquittal, but often will be so by the verdict "not proven". This is huge, if you think about it. Use, for example, a rape trial. A woman testifies, saying that Joe Schmoe climbed through her window and raped her. She knows Joe - he's her neighbor. Nobody saw him climb in. But she knows it's him. He leaves no physical evidence, having shaved his entire body and used appropriate protection (gloves, condemn, etc.). She has a rape kit done. Rape is obvious, but the only proof is her testimony. Joe goes free. But in Scotland, he goes free with a stigma attached. He's found "not proven" rather than "not guilty". I think this corroboration rule has a lot to do with why this verdict system still exists. In the U.S. the trier of fact would weigh the testimony and decide if one person was substantially more believable than the other, and a verdict would issue. That is a substantial difference, procedurally.

Since Scotland doesn't have the hung jury because there is no consensus required they use the "not proven" in the same way a U.S. jury uses the hung jury when one or more jurors thinks the prosecution didn't prove their case but it's fairly clear the defendant is, in fact guilty. Then, you will often get a "hold out" juror, and since the U.S. requires a unanimous verdict, the hold out hangs the jury. It's sort of the opposite of jury nullification. The person knows that the evidence fell short, but their conscience can't reconcile letting the person go free, so they will vote guilty to hang the jury, almost ensuring the prosecution gets another shot.

There has been a lot of debate about this three verdict system in comparative law circles, with many legal scholars saying it's antiquated. But I think it serves an important purpose. It carries the stigma of likely guilt for those people who probably committed the crime but got off. Further, the hung jury cost tax payers millions of dollars in the U.S., and this is often the side effect of people not wanting there to be absolutely no recognition of the fact that the accused probably committed (especially serious) crime(s). The Scots, on the other hand, have found away to accomplish this without the cost and emotional toll multiple trials takes on all the players involved, from witnesses and victims, their families, the accused, and even the lawyers and the prosecutions, who have to put in all the work of a trial just to start anew.

Here is a really good scholarly article that deals with this interesting phenomenon not seen in (I don't believe) any other country:


  • I would also mention that a not proven verdict means the accused can be tried again.
    – Viktor
    Commented Sep 28, 2015 at 17:07
  • 3
    That's not true, Viktor. Double jeopardy attaches to not proven verdict in Scotland. Scotland enacted the Double Jeopardy act in 2011. Any person who is tried by court or jury, is free from facing the jeopardy of a trial again, unless their was some sort of unjust finding due to the accused tainting the jury, or falsifying evinced, etc. and even then, there has to be a strong showing that the person would've been convicted had they not unlawfully intervened. See rules:legislation.gov.uk/asp/2011/16
    – gracey209
    Commented Sep 28, 2015 at 17:31
  • This is a international law journal about double jeopardy in Scotland. See highlighted portion. books.google.com/…
    – gracey209
    Commented Sep 28, 2015 at 17:31
  • 1
    Many thanks for this comprehensive and well-sourced answer!
    – Flup
    Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 12:39
  • 1
    My pleasure. Good question!
    – gracey209
    Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 12:46

As I understand it, double jeopardy does not apply to a verdict of "not proven."

  • Which essentially means the prosecution at their discretion may try the case again (supposedly with new evidence)
    – Viktor
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 20:22
  • 3
    This answer could be improved by adding some references.
    – jimsug
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 21:38
  • 1
    According to copfs.gov.uk/glossary-of-legal-terms#N this is wrong.
    – Flup
    Commented Sep 5, 2015 at 14:34

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