The Plea Hearing

The first hearing in any case is a Plea Hearing or Pleading Diet. If relevant it is also a Bail Hearing. This hearing will not be a trial. They will simply check your details, ask you to enter a plea ('Not Guilty' or 'Guilty') and possibly consider whether you should be on bail or not.

Bail

The court has three options in terms of releasing someone until the next hearing: They can release you on bail, release you without bail conditions (you will be 'Ordained to Appear' at the next hearing) or remand you in prison.

If you have received a citation and plead by post then they can't put you on bail - you have to be present to agree to the bail conditions to end up on bail. Thus, if you have received a citation then you shouldn't be put on bail even if you go along in person.

If you appear on an Undertaking they may ask for bail but you can argue that there is no need. If you appear from custody then you are more likely to end up on bail. Unless you are No Fixed Abode or are already on bail in Scotland or it's VERY serious then you are very unlikely to be remanded - unless you refuse to accept the bail conditions!

If you are put on bail in Scotland then there are a number of standard conditions which are always imposed. These are that you:

  • Turn up for all the court hearings in the case (unless excused attendance).

  • Do not commit another offence while on bail.

  • Do not interfere with witnesses or obstruct the course of justice.

  • Make yourself available for any reports the court has ordered.

(In practice, only the first two are usually relevant in our cases.) The PF can also ask for special conditions, such as not enter a certain area. You have the right to argue against any such conditions, or the need for bail at all. Once the court has decided to put you on bail and on what conditions you will be asked to agree to them. If you don't you will be remanded (sent to prison until the trial). If you are on bail and break any of the conditions then they can add an extra charge of Breach of Bail.

Pleading

You will also be asked at this first hearing to enter a plea - 'Not Guilty' or 'Guilty'. If you want to challenge the validity of the charge in law, or are on an Undertaking and have only just got the complaint and want to consult a solicitor before pleading, then you can ask for the case to be Continued Without Plea to another date. Otherwise you would enter a plea. If you are on a citation then you can plead by post by filling in the attached form.

If you are jointly charged with one or more other people we suggest you get in touch with them so that you know which of you is pleading guilty or not guilty, and whether any of you wants a solicitor. Your Legal Support Team should be able to help put you in touch with co-accused.

Keep copies of all documents you receive from or send to the court. You may need them at a later date. You may also wish to send some or all such letters by recorded delivery.

Pleading Not Guilty

If you have a citation then all you have to do is fill in Section 1 on the reply form and send it back. If there are extra things you want to ask the court you can add a covering letter.

These could include:

  1. Tell them what dates you are not available to appear for trial. They don't have to take any notice of this but usually do. Trials are usually set for several months after the pleading date.

  2. Ask to be excused attendance at an Intermediate Diet. (All Scottish court hearings are called 'diets' - don't worry, they won't ask what you had for breakfast and count the calories!) An Intermediate Diet is a hearing a week or two before the trial diet to check that both you and the PF are ready to go to trial. It means if you are not ready or there is a problem with one of the witnesses, etc. then they can change the trial diet and not have the witnesses turning up unnecessarily. In practice the PF still regularly asks for adjournments on the day of the trial because the police have only just told him/her they can't come. Intermediate Diets usually only take a few minutes and the District Court is usually willing to excuse you attendance at this if you have to travel any distance or most of the time doesn't bother setting them.

  3. 1.If you have any special requirements for the court, e.g. that it has disabled access for you or your witnesses or that it has the microphone loop system because you have hearing difficulties. The District Court in Helensburgh is held in the Municipal Building, on the first floor with no lift. If disabled access is required they have to arrange a date when they can use Victoria Halls. Likewise they set up the microphones at Victoria Halls. There is no disabled access to the main courtrooms at Dumbarton Sheriff Court and special arrangements have to be made to call the court in the ground floor annexe. Recently some activists have been arguing that all cases should be heard in an accessible court so that any member of the public can attend. While Helensburgh District Court has not accepted this when put explicitly they have been accepting requests to have the case heard in an accessible venue without requiring any special justification. However, they have fewer dates available in Victoria Halls so it will mean you have to wait longer for your trial. Also, if you have a lot of dates when you are unavailable and you don't physically need an accessible venue (either for yourself or a witness) then it might be safer to not ask for an accessible court. The dates they currently have available in Victoria Halls are already getting on for six months away and if your unavailability would push it much further back they may decide it's not reasonable --- but they would have to allow the request for an accessible court.

  4. If English is not your first language then you can ask the court to arrange an interpreter.

  5. You could include your request for copies of witness statements in the same envelope (see here for more on requesting witness statements).

The court will write to you to tell you when your trial date is. They should write to you within a few weeks of the Plea Hearing, although the actual trial date is likely to be 2-3 months away.

Pleading Guilty

You can either do this by letter or come in person. Either way you can make a 'plea of mitigation'. This means you explain the mitigating circumstances of why you did what you are pleading guilty to. You can do this on the form at section 3 or if you want more room add a separate sheet. You can send anything you like really: leaflets, poems, songs, paper cranes, photographs.

If you plead by letter, when your name is called the PF will open your file and read your letter, then pass it to the clerk to read who then passes it to the Justice or Sheriff. No one reads it out aloud but those of us in court can see the reactions. If there are people in court supporting other people, whether from your Blockading Group or another, then it's quite nice for them to have a copy of your letter to pass around among themselves. Talk to your Legal Support Team (who can check with the Legal Working Group to see if there are other groups there that day). You may (or may not) also want to release the letter to your local press.

A word of warning - if in your explanation you say that you don't really think you did breach the peace then the court can decide not to accept your guilty plea and set a trial date anyway.

It is up to you whether you want to give details about your financial circumstances. In principle the court will fine you according to your means, although it often seems to rely more on who is 'on the bench' and what mood they are in.

The court can decide that even though you have pled guilty by letter they want you to appear in person for sentencing.

If you don't reply

If you forget to reply in time, lose the paperwork etc. you can phone the PF's office (see here) to find out if they have set another date or issued a warrant. You may even hear through your Legal Support Team (if there was another group in court that day). Even if there is a warrant you can arrange with the PF to appear at the court in person on an 'invitational warrant' to sort it out. This means that you are not in custody but handing yourself into the court voluntarily. Often if they have not heard from you they 'Continue without plea' a couple of times to give you a chance to respond.

If you move abroad.

If you leave the country and therefore miss a trial or don't answer a citation the court may well issue a warrant. If you contact the court before the court date to explain that you have now left the PF may well just abandon the case. If a warrant is issued it will sit on the computer for several years. They are not going to send Interpol after you for a Breach of the Peace. It might show up at immigration if you come back into the country, and you might be arrested and brought here for court. If you come back here for another action or camp you may be recognised and arrested. We don't know if anyone who needs a visa to enter the country will be affected by outstanding warrants.

After a couple of years the warrant will be dropped. A warrant for an outstanding fine stays active for longer than a warrant for a missed court appearance.