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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 heard in civil courts
  • cases which involve charges being brought against individuals or organisations, for example rape or assault. These are criminal cases brought in criminal courts.

Each section has its own courts and systems for dealing with cases and appeals. There is a very useful website at www.scotcourts.gov.uk that provides a lot of information about the court system in Scotland.

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Civil courts

Sheriff court

There are sheriff courts in most districts in Scotland. Usually the sheriff is a qualified advocate or solicitor. The highest authority is the Sheriff Principal. If you are not satisfied with the sheriff’s decision about your case you can appeal to the Sheriff Principal.

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
  • 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 £3000. 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.

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 for compensation in personal injury claims or broken agreements
  • The Inner House which deals with people who are appealing against decisions of either the Sheriff 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. 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.

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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 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 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.

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.

If you are not satisfied with the decision of the sheriff court in criminal cases you may be able to appeal to the High Court. This is the final court of appeal for all criminal cases.

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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.

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