Frequently asked questions

1. Where does the Commissioner get her power to conduct investigations and reviews?

The Police Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2006 as amended by The Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 gives the Commissioner powers to conduct investigations where directed by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) or when requested to do so by the Chief Constable or Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

In addition, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Investigations Procedure, Serious Incidents and Specified Weapons) Regulations 2013 provide additional powers to deal with referrals by the Chief Constable or SPA.

The Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2013 extended PIRC’s remit to investigate a constable/member/officer/official with:

  • British Transport Police and the British Transport Police Authority.
  • The Civil Nuclear Constabulary and the Civil Nuclear Police Authority.
  • The Ministry of Defence Police.
  • The National Crime Agency.
  • HM Revenue and Customs.
  • A general customs official and any other person exercising general customs functions under the authority of the Secretary of State or the Director of Border Revenue.
  • An immigration officer and an official of the Secretary of State exercising functions relating to asylum and immigration.

The Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2006 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2007 allows PIRC to review the handling of complaints by the above policing bodies.

The Commissioner is also provided with powers in The Police Service of Scotland (Senior Officers) Conduct Regulations 2013 which allow for members of the Commissioner's staff to investigate in the conduct of senior officers of the rank of Assistant Chief Constable and above.

2. What kind of penalties or sanctions can the Commissioner impose?

PIRC has no punitive powers. However, we do report our findings back to the policing body with any relevant recommendations to implement.

We notify the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service when any evidence of criminality is found.


Where appropriate, some of our Investigation reports will provide feedback and highlight any opportunities for organisational learning that we identify during the investigation.

This could include improving or reviewing police standard operating procedures or policies.

Many of our reports are confidential and we are unable to comment or publish them.

Complaint Handling Reviews

If, during a Complaint Handling Review, we identify failings, shortcomings or deficiencies in the way the policing body has handled the complaint, we may issue a recommendation.

A recommendation may ask the policing body to carry out further enquiries into your complaint, provide the applicant with a more detailed response or even re-assess the available evidence based on the findings of our report.

In some cases, we may issue a reconsideration direction. This means that we have concluded that the complaint must be looked at again in full.

In all cases, we look for learning opportunities for the police so that their standard of complaint handling can be improved in the future.

3. Who decides which incidents are investigated?

All sudden, suspicious and unexplained deaths are reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) who will then examine the circumstances of the death and decide whether to instruct the PIRC to investigate. 

Where a person dies in police custody there will always be an independent investigation.

COPFS can also instruct PIRC to investigate incidents where a person has died following direct or indirect contact with the police.  

Otherwise, it is PIRC’s decision whether or not to investigate other types of serious incidents or a matter that is in the public interest. PIRC has discretion on whether or not to investigate allegations of misconduct referred by the SPA. By law, it must investigate allegations of gross misconduct.

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4. What type of investigations do the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) instruct the Commissioner to carry out?

COPFS will instruct us to investigate serious incidents involving the police. These include deaths in custody, deaths following police contact and allegations of criminality made about police officers. 

5. What type of investigations must the Chief Constable of Police Scotland refer to the Commissioner?

The Chief Constable must refer serious incidents involving the police to the Commissioner. 'Serious incidents’ means:

  • The death or serious injury of a person who had direct or indirect contact with the police. This will have been at or before their death or serious injury where there is an indication that the contact may have caused, or contributed to, the death or serious injury.
  • Police use of a firearm, which includes the presentation or discharge of a gun and the discharge of a Taser or CS/PAVA spray.

6. What type of investigations must the Scottish Police Authority refer to the Commissioner?

The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) must refer to the Commissioner:

  • Any circumstance in which there has been a serious incident involving a member of the Authority's staff.
  • Potential misconduct by a senior officer of Police Scotland, if the Authority considers that the matter needs to be investigated.

7. Which type of investigation reports can the Commissioner publish?

  • Investigations directed by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS)

Our findings and report to COPFS are confidential and will not be published.

  • Investigations referred by the Chief Constable or other policing bodies operating in Scotland

The Commissioner may publish the conclusions unless criminal proceedings are still being considered.

  • Investigations referred by the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) regarding misconduct by a senior officer of the rank of ACC and above.

The Commissioner is not authorised to publish these reports. 

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8. What is the PIRC’s Complaint Handling Review process

  • Once we have received an application for a Complaint Handling Review (CHR), we will request the case papers relating to the complaint from the policing body involved.
  • We examine the facts of the case and will consider whether or not the information available supports the complaint. 
  • We will also look at the policing body's response and consider whether this addresses the complaint. We will then form a view on whether the complaint was dealt with to a reasonable standard.
  • The outcome of the Complaint Handling Review will be explained in a report which will be sent to both the applicant and the policing body.
  • The report sets out our views on how the policing body handled the complaint.
  • Any recommendations we make should be implemented by the policing body within two months of the date of our report.
  • We will liaise with the policing body on the implementation of any recommendations.
  • The policing body should provide the applicant with any final updates on progress.
  • The applicant will receive a letter from the policing body to let them know when any accepted recommendations have been carried out.
  • Any police officer or member of civilian staff involved in the complaint will also be informed of the outcome of the PIRC review.
  • Some of our reports are published in a summarised format, online.

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