The High Court is both a court of first instance and a court of appeal. As a court of first instance, the High Court sits mainly in Parliament House, or in the former Sheriff Court building, in Edinburgh, but also sits from time to time at various other locations in Scotland. As a court of appeal, it sits only in Edinburgh.
The High Court of Justiciary once sat apparently outside Scotland, at Zeist in the Netherlands during the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial(see Scottish Court in the Netherlands). However, the court precincts were temporarily made British territory under Scottish Law for the duration of this case.
The individuals who sit in the High Court often hold a seat simultaneously in Scotland's civil court system.
The judges of the High Court are the same ones who sit in the Court of Session, Scotland's supreme civil court. The Court of Session's Lord President is also the High Court's Lord Justice General. The Lord Justice Clerk holds his or her office in both courts. The remaining judges are referred to as Lords Commissioners of Justiciary in the context of the High Court, and Lords of Council and Session or Senators of the College of Justice in the context of the Court of Session.
When sitting as a court of first instance, that is, when hearing a case for the first time rather than on appeal, a single Lord Commissioner of Justiciary usually presides (although two or more judges may sit in important or difficult cases) with a jury of fifteen individuals. Under the Scottish legal system, the jury need not return a unanimous verdict; a majority verdict may also be used. The Scottish legal system also permits a verdict of 'not proven' as well as verdicts of 'guilty' or 'not guilty'.
The High Court has jurisdiction over all crimes in Scotland unless restricted by statute. In practice, however, the High Court generally deals with crimes, such as murder and rape, in which it has exclusive jurisdiction, as well as other serious crimes.
Appeals may be made to the High Court of Justiciary sitting as the Court of Criminal Appeal from the lower courts in criminal cases. An appeal may also be made to the High Court if the High Court itself heard the case at first instance. Two judges sit to hear an appeal against sentence, and three judges sit to hear an appeal against conviction.
There is no further appeal from the High Court's decision on appeal, in contrast to the Court of Session, from which it is possible to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. However, appeals under theHuman Rights Act 1998 and devolution appeals under the Scotland Act 1998 are heard by the Supreme Court.
The High Court was founded in 1672, but its origins derive from the College of Justice, as well as from the medieval royal courts. The medieval Justiciar (royal judge) took its name from the justices who originally travelled around Scotland hearing cases on circuit or 'ayre'. From 1524, the Justiciar or a deputy was required to have a "permanent base" in Edinburgh, and as such the College of Justice was established in Edinburgh in 1532.