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Sheriff courts deal with a myriad of legal procedures which include:
- Solemn and summary criminal cases
- Large and small estates upon a death
- Fine payments
- Civil actions under ordinary, summary cause, and small claim procedures
- Adoption cases
- Bankruptcy actions
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 Act of 1747 abolished the office of hereditary sheriff and the sheriff-depute soon became sheriff.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
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 a hundred and forty 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 recently, 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 following the decision of the High Court of Justiciary in Starrs v Ruxton.4
The Courts are staffed by civil servants who are employed by the Scottish Court Service which is a public body, independent of the Scottish Government. The Scottish Court 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.5
As of December 1, 2013, there are 46 Sheriff Courts in Scotland.6 7 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.
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, and the Court of Session is Scotland's supreme civil court.
Any final decision of a Sheriff may be appealed. There is a right of appeal in civil cases to the Sheriff Principal, and in most cases onwards to the Court of Session. Criminal decisions are appealed to the High Court of Justiciary.
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".8
Among his 206 proposals were:8
- 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:9
- "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.10
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- Hugh Latta Starrs and James Wilson Chalmers and Bill of Advocation for Procurator Fiscal, Linlithgow v. Procurator Fiscal, Linlithgow and Hugh Latta Starrs and James Wilson Chalmers (1999) ScotHC 242, November 11, 1999, British and Irish Legal Information Institute, accessed September 16, 2007
- Quick Guide to the Sheriffdoms in Scotland, Scottish Law Online, accessed September 16, 2007
- James Douglas-Hamilton (ed.),The Sheriff Court Districts (Alteration of Boundaries) Order 1996, Office of Public Sector Information, March 29, 1996, accessed September 16, 2007
- The Sheriff Court Districts Amendment Order 2013, The National Archives. May 16, 2013, accessed December 8, 2013
- David Leask, "Blueprint for cheaper, faster, fairer justice for all", [The Scotsman], 1 October 2009, p 4 via factiva.com accessed 23 October 2011.
- The Scottish Government, "Proposals for Civil Justice Reform" (Media Release), Edinburgh, Scotland, 11 November 2010, via factiva.com accessed 23 October 2011.
- 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.
- Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1907
- Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1971
- Scottish Court Service
- Scottish Executive
- MiniTrial Information for Schools on Scottish Justice
- Faculty of Advocates
- Law Society of Scotland
- Jurisdiction of Scottish courts
- Scottish Legal Aid Board
- Judicial Appointments Board
- Judicial Appointments Board description of post of Sheriff