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Courts of law

This information applies to Scotland only

The legal system in Scotland has two distinct sections for:-

  • cases which involve disputes between individuals or organisations, for example eviction or divorce. These are civil cases.
  • cases which involve charges being brought against individuals or organisations, for example rape or assault. These are criminal cases.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service website at www.scotcourts.gov.uk provides a lot of information about the court and tribunal systems in Scotland.

Civil courts

Sheriff court

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 are not satisfied with the sheriff’s decision about your case you can make an appeal. Routine appeals and most appeals from the small claims and summary cause processes 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 3 appeal sheriffs in the Sheriff Appeal Court in Edinburgh. 

The sheriff court has what is called 'exclusive jurisdiction' to hear cases of up to the value of £100,000 from 22 September 2015. Prior to this date it could only hear cases up to the value of £5,000.

Examples of civil cases the sheriff court can deal with are:

  • separation, divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership
  • custody or aliment disputes
  • adoption
  • 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
  • debt
  • money claims for broken agreements
  • wills
  • bankruptcy or liquidation
  • registering clubs
  • licensing
  • fatal accident enquiries where the cause of death is unclear or unexplained.

Small claims in the sheriff court

A small claim is a claim for money or goods worth not more than £3,000. The small claims procedure is informal and is very useful if you want to handle your own case.

For more information see What is a small claim.

All Scotland Personal Injury Court

From 22 September 2015 there is 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:

  • its value exceeds £5,000, or
  • it is a workplace-related personal injury case with a value exceeding £1,000, or
  • it is 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, which is in Edinburgh, is the highest civil court in Scotland. It 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 are 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 other members who are laymen with experience in questions relating to agriculture. It deals with such matters as succession to crofts, grazing rights, disputes between landlords and tenants of holdings and other agricultural problems.

There is a right to appeal to the Court of Session but only on a point of law.

Criminal courts

Criminal cases are dealt with under one of two procedures depending on the seriousness of the offence, these are:

  • minor offences, such as being drunk and disorderly, are heard before a 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/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 (JP) court

Cases dealing with minor offences are heard before a Justice of the Peace in the Justice of the Peace (JP) court. JPs are not usually qualified solicitors. The maximum sentence a JP can impose is a fine of £2,500 or sending someone to prison for up to 60 days or both.

Examples of cases the Justice of the Peace court can deal with are:

  • some traffic offences, for example driving through a red traffic light
  • being drunk and disorderly
  • assaulting a police officer.

Sheriff court

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 5 years (3 years for cases that were first called before 1 May 2004) in prison or an unlimited fine.

Examples of criminal cases the sheriff court can deal with are:

  • theft
  • assault
  • possession of drugs
  • soliciting
  • appeals from the Children's Hearing.

For more details on children’s hearings see Children who are looked after by the local authority.

If you are 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:

  • murder
  • rape
  • incest
  • treason
  • 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 at www.copfs.gov.uk.

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 have some information about witnesses in civil and criminal cases on their website at www.scotcourts.gov.uk.

International Courts

The Court of Justice of the European Union

If your problem is one which is covered by European law your case may be referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) advises on interpretation of European Community law and takes action against countries that have either ignored the EC 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 CJEU for guidance (a ruling). The case is then sent back to the national court to make a ruling.

The 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 it investigated. If you are unhappy about the court decision you can appeal. If you are unhappy about the appeal decision you can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights but you must apply within 6 months of the final decision in Scotland.