A Guide to the Scottish Court System

The Act of the Union created the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707 by uniting Scotland and England. However, Scotland retained the right to an independent judicial system quite distinct from England. With the exception of some specialist courts (such as the Scottish Land Court), there are three civil courts within the UK that have jurisdiction in Scotland; namely (1) the Sheriff Court, (2) the Court of Session and (3) the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. This briefing does not deal with the Scottish Criminal Courts (the Justice of the Peace Court, the Sheriff Court, High Court of Justiciary and occasionally the Supreme Court).

Sheriff Court and its Jurisdiction

Scotland’s Sheriff Courts are organised into six geographical areas known as Sheriffdoms (namely, Grampian, Highland and Islands; Tayside Central and Fife; Lothian and Borders; Glasgow and Strathkelvin; North Strathclyde; and South Srathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway). Each Sheriffdom has its own Sheriff Principal responsible for all the Sheriffs and Sheriff Courts within his Sheriffdom. In the six Sheriffdoms there are a total of forty-nine Sheriff Court Districts with their own Sheriff Court. The Sheriff Principal can hear appeals from the Sheriff Courts within his Sheriffdom. When the Pursuer raises an action the Court where the action is raised must establish jurisdiction over the Defender. The Sheriff Court usually has jurisdiction over the Defender if he has resided within that district for a period of forty days immediately prior to the action being raised or if the Defender has no known address within Scotland and has resided within that district for less than forty days. Where a Defender carries on business within a district the Defender may either be cited to attend the Sheriff Court in his personal district or in the district where he carries on business. If the subject matter relates to heritable property then the district where the heritable property is situated has jurisdiction. In cases of breach of contract or delict the court has jurisdiction if either the place of performance of the contract or the delict was carried out in that district. The Sheriff Court has a wide jurisdiction over the types of cases it can hear. The Sheriff Court holds privative jurisdiction (i.e. such cases must be raised there) over cases where the sum sought is less than £5,000. There is no maximum limit for Sheriff Court claims.

Court of Session and its Jurisdiction

The Court of Session is the supreme civil court in Scotland and is divided into the Outer House (which is a court of first instance) and the Inner House (which primarily acts as an Appeal Court). In the Court of Session jurisdiction is usually founded on the basis that the Defender is habitually resident in Scotland or that the Defender is the owner or tenant of heritable property situated in Scotland. A small number of cases can only be heard by the Court of Session. These are heard by the Outer House and on appeal would be heard by the Inner House. These actions relate to matters such as personal status (e.g.. reduction (setting aside) of documents), the tenor of lost documents, petitions to wind up companies with a share capital of more than £120,000 and actions challenging the decisions of government ministers or local authorities.

Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in relation to Scotland extends to appeals from the civil Scottish Courts and it is the highest appellate Court. The Supreme Court assumed the judicial functions of The House of Lords under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 and started work on the 1st October 2009.

This guide is current 10 December 2012 and is our understanding of the position described at that date. It does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice ought to be taken before relying on its terms (particularly to ensure the law has not changed).