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Sheriff court

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Sheriff court
Royal Court of Arms of the United Kingdom as used by the Courts in Scotland
JurisdictionSheriff court districts in six sheriffdoms of Scotland
Composition methodAppointed by Monarch on recommendation of First Minister of Scotland, who is given a recommendation from the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland
Authorized by
Appeals to
Judge term length
  • Permanent sheriffs: Life tenure with mandatory retirement at 70
  • Part-time sheriffs: 5 years subject to reappointment
Websitewww.scotcourts.gov.uk/the-courts/sheriff-court Edit this at Wikidata

A sheriff court (Scottish Gaelic: Cùirt an t-Siorraim) is the principal local civil and criminal court in Scotland, with exclusive jurisdiction over all civil cases with a monetary value up to £100,000, and with the jurisdiction to hear any criminal case except treason, murder, and rape, which are in the exclusive jurisdiction of the High Court of Justiciary. Though the sheriff courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the High Court over armed robbery, drug trafficking, and sexual offences involving children, the vast majority of these cases are heard by the High Court. Each court serves a sheriff court district within one of the six sheriffdoms of Scotland. Each sheriff court is presided over by a sheriff, who is a legally qualified judge, and part of the judiciary of Scotland.

Sheriff courts hear civil cases as a bench trial without a jury, and make determinations and judgments alone. However, the specialist all-Scotland Sheriff Personal Injury Court (based in Edinburgh) has the ability to hear cases at proof[clarification needed] with a jury of twelve. Sheriff courts hear criminal trials on complaint as a bench trial for summary offences, and as a trial with a jury of fifteen for indictable offences. Where a person is convicted following a case heard on complaint they can be sentenced to a maximum of twelve months imprisonment and/or a £10,000 fine, and in solemn cases, 5 years imprisonment or an unlimited fine.

Judgments of the sheriff courts in criminal offences handled through summary procedures, and civil cases handled through small claims and summary process, can be appealed to the Sheriff Appeal Court. Criminal offences heard on indictment through solemn procedure are appealed to the High Court of Justiciary. Other civil actions are appealed to the Inner House of the Court of Session.


Scottish version of the Royal Arms at Edinburgh Sheriff Court

The office of sheriff dates from the early days of the Scottish monarchy. Generally, one of the more powerful local lords in each county was appointed and the office became hereditary in his family. The original purpose of the sheriff was to exercise and preserve the King's authority against the rival powers of the local lords and the sheriff became the local representative of the King in all matters, judicial and administrative. The sheriff dispensed the King's justice in his county in the Sheriff Court. The hereditary sheriff later delegated his judicial functions to a trained lawyer called a sheriff-depute. The Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746 abolished the office of hereditary sheriff and the sheriff-depute soon became sheriff principal.[1]: 734 [2]: 185–6 

At first, only the sheriff of the Lothians and Peebles (who sat at Edinburgh) and the sheriff of Lanarkshire (who sat at Glasgow) were full-time appointments.[1]: 734  Since the part-time sheriff-depute was not compelled to reside within his sheriffdom and could carry on his practice as advocate, it became common for a depute to appoint a sheriff-substitute who acted in his absence. Over time, the judicial duties of the depute were entirely assumed by the substitute and the depute became a judge of appeal from the decisions of his substitute.[2]: 186 

The Sheriff Court (Scotland) Act 1870 combined the thirty counties of Scotland into fifteen sheriffdoms. Until 1877, the sheriffs-substitutes were appointed by the sheriffs-deputes; after 1877, that right was reserved to the Crown.[1]: 734 

The civil procedure before the Sheriff Court underwent a major overhaul with the enactment of the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1907.[3]

Remit and jurisdiction[edit]

The legal cases which are heard within the courts are dealt with by a sheriff. A sheriff is a judge who is usually assigned to work in a specific court, although some work as "floating sheriffs", who may work anywhere in Scotland. There are about 140 full-time sheriffs in the various courts and a number of part-time sheriffs. They are appointed on the recommendation of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland. Until 1999, there were also "temporary sheriffs" who were appointed by the executive year by year and only sat for particular days by invitation; this class of sheriff was abolished as being inconsistent with judicial independence (contrary to article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights) following the decision of the High Court of Justiciary in Starrs v Ruxton.[4]

The sheriff courts are the main criminal courts. The procedure followed may either be solemn procedure, where the Sheriff sits with a jury of fifteen; or summary procedure, where the sheriff sits alone in a bench trial. From 10 December 2007, the maximum penalty that may be imposed in summary cases is 12 months imprisonment and/or a £10,000 fine, and in solemn cases 5 years imprisonment or an unlimited fine.[5]

A higher sentence in solemn cases may be imposed upon remittance of the case to the High Court of Justiciary.


The Courts are staffed by civil servants who are employed by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service which is a non-ministerial government department whose corporate board is chaired by the Lord President of the Court of Session, and is independent of the Scottish Ministers. The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service publishes an online map, lists of Sheriffs, and the rules of the court under different procedures.


There are six sheriffdoms in Scotland, each with a sheriff principal. Within each sheriffdom are sheriff court districts, each with a court presided over by one or more sheriffs. The most senior civil servant in each Court is the sheriff clerk and he or she is charged directly with the management of the Court. The Sheriffdoms are Glasgow and Strathkelvin, Grampian, Highland and Islands, Lothian and Borders, North Strathclyde, South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway, and Tayside Central and Fife.[6]

The main Sheriff Court in Edinburgh.

As of 1 February 2015, there are 39 Sheriff Courts in Scotland.[7][8] Some, in rural areas of Scotland, are small due to the sparse population. Courts such as those in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow have a large number of staff and can in one day deal with hundreds of cases. Glasgow Sheriff Court, for example, is the busiest Court in Europe.

Sheriffdom Sheriff Principal[9] Districts
Glasgow and Strathkelvin Sheriff Principal Aisha Anwar Glasgow and Strathkelvin
Grampian, Highlands and Islands Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle Aberdeen
Fort William
Lothian and Borders Sheriff Principal Nigel Ross Edinburgh
North Strathclyde Sheriff Principal Sean Murphy KC Campbeltown
South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway Sheriff Principal Kate Dowdalls Airdrie
Tayside Central and Fife Sheriff Principal Gillian Wade KC Alloa

Relationship to other courts[edit]

Sheriff Courts are above local Justice of the Peace Courts who deal with very minor offences and below the Supreme Courts. The High Court of Justiciary deals with serious criminal matters, such as murder, rape and treason, and the Court of Session is Scotland's supreme civil court.

Any final decision of a Sheriff may be appealed. On 1 January 2016 the right of appeal to the Sheriff Principal was abolished and instead an appeal lies to the newly created Sheriff Appeal Court.[10] All Criminal decisions were formally appealed to the High Court of Justiciary, but as of 22 September 2015 appeals in summary cases and appeals against bail decisions go to the Sheriff Appeal Court with appeals from Solemn cases going to the High Court of Justiciary.[11]

Reform of civil procedure[edit]

In 2009 Lord Gill, the Lord Justice Clerk, delivered his Scottish Civil Courts Review which was heralded as the "most far-reaching reform of Scotland's civil justice system in nearly two centuries".[12]

Among his 206 proposals were:[12]

  • a major shift of work from the Court of Session to sheriff courts,
  • removal of the jurisdictional overlap between those courts,
  • specialisation of sheriffs in areas such as family law, commerce, personal injury,
  • new district judges to deal with less legally complicated and low-value civil actions such as small claims and housing disputes.

In November 2010 the Scottish Government released its response to the Review accepting "the majority of Lord Gill's recommendations" including expressly the following proposals:[13]

  • "Civil court business should be reallocated to more appropriate levels, with a far greater proportion of civil court business to be heard by the sheriff courts
  • "A specialised personal injury court should be established as part of Edinburgh Sheriff Court
  • "The creation of a new Sheriff Appeal Court
  • "The introduction of a new role of District Judge
  • "Adoption of an improved and more active approach to case management
  • "The introduction of designated specialist judges"

In October 2011, the Scottish Government announced consultation on appointments to a new Scottish Civil Justice Council to draft rules of procedure for civil proceedings in the Court of Session and sheriff court. The establishment of the Council was one of Lord Gill's 2009 recommendations.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Edwin R. Keedy, "Criminal Procedure in Scotland", (1913) 3 (5) Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 728 via JSTOR accessed 22 October 2011.
  2. ^ a b W. E. Dodds, "A Few Comparisons between English and Scots Law" (1926) 8 (4) Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law, Third Series 184 via JSTOR accessed 22 October 2011.
  3. ^ The Scottish Government, "Part 3", "Background to the Review", Scottish Government Response to the Report and Recommendations of the Scottish Civil Courts Review, "33. It is important to acknowledge that the Scottish system of civil justice has largely served Scotland well since the last major overhaul, the passage of the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1907, and many of the problems now encountered in Scotland have also developed in other, comparable legal systems."
  4. ^ Starrs and Chalmers v Procurator Fiscal, Linlithgow; Procurator Fiscal, Linlithgow v Starrs and Chalmers [1999] HCJAC 242 (11 November 1999)
  5. ^ Part III of the Criminal Proceedings etc. (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007
  6. ^ Quick Guide to the Sheriffdoms in Scotland, Scottish Law Online, accessed 16 September 2007
  7. ^ James Douglas-Hamilton (ed.),The Sheriff Court Districts (Alteration of Boundaries) Order 1996, Office of Public Sector Information, 29 March 1996, accessed 16 September 2007
  8. ^ The Sheriff Court Districts Amendment Order 2013, The National Archives. 16 May 2013, accessed 8 December 2013
  9. ^ "Sheriffs Principal - Judicial Office Holders - About the Judiciary - Judiciary of Scotland". www.scotland-judiciary.org.uk. Judicial Office for Scotland. 2017. Retrieved 2 April 2017.
  10. ^ "Sheriff Appeal Court - Civil".
  11. ^ "Sheriff Appeal Court - Criminal".
  12. ^ a b David Leask, "Blueprint for cheaper, faster, fairer justice for all", [The Scotsman], 1 October 2009, p 4 via factiva.com accessed 23 October 2011.
  13. ^ The Scottish Government, "Proposals for Civil Justice Reform" (Media Release), Edinburgh, Scotland, 11 November 2010, via factiva.com accessed 23 October 2011.
  14. ^ Julie Hamilton, "Scottish Government Consulting On Appointment Of A Scottish Civil Justice Council", Mondaq Business Briefing, 14 October 2011 via factiva.com accessed 23 October 2010.

External links[edit]