Courts of law
This information applies to Scotland only.
Coronavirus - urgent and necessary business only
Due to social distancing rules and the risk of staff shortages only urgent and necessary business is being done in the civil and criminal courts. You can find a list of the business being done at the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service website.
The legal system
The legal system in Scotland has distinct sections for:
- cases involving disputes between individuals or organisations, for example eviction or divorce. These are civil cases
- cases involving charges brought against individuals or organisations, for example rape or assault. These are criminal cases.
The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service website provides a lot of information about the courts and tribunals system in Scotland.
There are sheriff courts in most districts in Scotland. Usually the sheriff is a qualified advocate or solicitor. In some cases the legal representative may be a solicitor advocate. The highest administrative authority is the sheriff principal.
If you're not satisfied with the sheriff’s decision about your case, you can make an appeal on a point of law. Routine appeals and most appeals from the simple procedure in the sheriff court may be dealt with by a single appeal sheriff in the local sheriffdom. In more complex cases the appeal could be heard by a bench of three appeal sheriffs in the Sheriff Appeal Court in Edinburgh.
The sheriff court has exclusive jurisdiction to hear cases worth up to £100,000.
Examples of civil cases the sheriff court can deal with are:
- separation, divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership
- custody or aliment disputes
- claims for damages for carelessness
- personal injuries
- tenant/landlord problems, including evictions
- discrimination cases, including discrimination about race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, religion and marriage and civil partnership
- money claims for broken agreements
- bankruptcy or liquidation
- registering clubs
- fatal accident enquiries where the cause of death is unclear or unexplained.
Civil legal action in the sheriff court
A case worth up to £100,000 must be raised in the sheriff court. Some cases heard in the sheriff court may be worth more than this amount.
Cases valued at £5,000 or less are dealt with under the simple procedure. Cases valued at over £5,000 are dealt with under the ordinary procedure. In most cases heard under the ordinary procedure, it may be advisable to have a solicitor but you don't have to have one. There are full details about the simple procedure on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service website. Find out more about the simple procedure.
You can have a lay representative under the simple procedure and the ordinary procedure. The sheriff in charge of a case under the simple procedure has powers to try to settle the case without needing a court hearing. You may be asked to consider alternative dispute resolution. More about using a lay representative in civil court action.
Claims worth £3,000 or less that were raised before 28 November 2016 are dealt with under the small claims procedure. If the claim was not resolved by this date, it will continue to be handled under the small claims rules. For more information, see What is a small claim.
All Scotland Personal Injury Court
There's a sheriff court in Edinburgh that hears all eligible personal injury cases from all parts of Scotland. A personal injury claim is heard in Edinburgh if one of the following applies:
- its value exceeds £5,000
- it's a workplace-related personal injury case worth £1,000 or more
- it's a workplace-related personal injury claim worth less than £1,000 but is sent to the Edinburgh court from an order of a sheriff in a sheriff court elsewhere in Scotland.
Court of Session
The Court of Session in Edinburgh is the highest civil court in Scotland. Cases that are worth less than £100,000 cannot be raised in the Court of Session but have to be raised in the sheriff court. The Court of Session is divided into two parts:
- the Outer House, which deals with complex cases of divorce, dissolution of a civil partnership or separation. It may also deal with cases when a large amount of money is being claimed
- the Inner House, which deals with people who are appealing against decisions of either the Sheriff Appeal Court or the Outer House of the Court of Session.
UK Supreme Court
If you're not satisfied with the decision of the Inner House of the Court of Session, you may be able to appeal to the UK Supreme Court. Either the Inner House of the Court of Session or the UK Supreme Court will have to grant permission for the appeal to be heard.
This is the final court of appeal for all civil cases. It can be very expensive to appeal a case to the UK Supreme Court.
The Scottish Land Court
This court consists of a chairman who is a lawyer plus four lay members with experience in questions of agriculture. It deals with matters like succession to crofts, grazing rights, disputes between landlords and tenants of holdings and other agricultural problems.
There's a right to appeal to the Court of Session but only on a point of law.
Criminal cases are dealt with under one of two procedures, depending on the seriousness of the offence:
- minor offences, such as being drunk and disorderly, are heard before a justice of the peace (JP) or a sheriff, who may be known as the summary sheriff, or a fixed penalty may be imposed at the time of the incident
- serious offences, such as rape and murder, are heard before a sheriff or a judge and jury.
A sheriff court can be designated as a drugs court for the immediate area. It can deal with offenders who have a drug abuse problem.
Justice of the peace court
Cases dealing with minor offences are heard before a justice of the peace in the JP court. JPs are not usually qualified solicitors. The maximum sentence a JP can impose is a fine of £2,500 or a prison sentence of up to 60 days, or both.
Examples of cases the JP court can deal with are:
- some traffic offences, for example driving through a red traffic light
- being drunk and disorderly
- assaulting a police officer.
The sheriff court can deal with some criminal cases. Cases can be heard before a sheriff alone, who may be known as the summary sheriff, or a sheriff and a jury. The maximum sentence for cases heard before a sheriff is a fine of £10,000 or 12 months in prison. The maximum sentence for cases heard before a sheriff and jury is five years in prison (three years for cases that were first called before 1 May 2004) or an unlimited fine.
Examples of criminal cases the sheriff court can deal with are:
- possession of drugs
- appeals from a children's hearing.
For more details on children’s hearings, see Children who are looked after by the local authority.
If you're not satisfied with the decision in summary criminal cases, you may be able to appeal to the Sheriff Appeal Court.
The High Court of Justiciary
Serious cases, such as murder, are dealt with by the High Court, heard by a judge and jury.
Examples of cases which the High Court can deal with are:
- large-scale fraud.
Witnesses in court proceedings
In both civil and criminal cases, witnesses can be called to court to provide evidence.
When witnesses are called in criminal cases, they may also be victims of a crime. The way in which witnesses are called is handled by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS). Some witnesses may require special measures because they are vulnerable. There is a helpful set of frequently asked questions on the COPFS website.
When witnesses are called to court in civil cases, they may feel anxious about having to go to court. The Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service has some information about witnesses in civil and criminal cases.
European Court of Justice (ECJ)
If your problem is covered by European Union (EU) law, your case may be referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ, also known as the Court of Justice of the European Union, or CJEU) in Luxembourg. The ECJ advises on interpretation of EU law and takes action against countries that have either ignored the law or failed to bring it into force correctly. You must first pursue your case through your national legal system, but the national court can - and, in some cases, must - refer an issue to the ECJ for guidance. The case is then sent back to the national court to make a ruling.
The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. However, EU law will continue to apply in the UK until 31 December 2020, and the ECJ still has jurisdiction on questions of EU law during this time.
European Court of Human Rights
If you think that your rights under the European Convention of Human Rights have been infringed, you can take legal action in a Scottish court to have the case investigated. If you're unhappy about the court decision, you can appeal. If you're unhappy about the appeal decision, you can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, but you must apply within six months of the final decision in Scotland.
The European Court of Human Rights is not part of the EU, and the European Convention on Human Rights is separate from EU law.