Court Structure

The Court of Session is Scotland's highest civil court. It deals with all forms of civil cases, including delict (civil wrongs, referred to as “tort” in other jurisdictions), contract, commercial cases, judicial review, family law and intellectual property. Judges will hear all kinds of cases, but some will have specialisations, and there are particular arrangements for commercial cases. More information about the commercial court can be found here.

The Court of Session is divided into the Outer House and the Inner House. The Outer House hears cases at first instance (meaning cases that have not previously been to court), and the Inner House is primarily the appeal court, hearing civil appeals from both the Outer House and Sheriff Courts. Appeals from the Inner House may go to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

In the Outer House, a judge sits alone, but occasionally there may be a civil jury made up of 12 people. The Inner House cases are heard by three judges, although five or more judges may hear more complex and significant cases.

The High Court of Justiciary is Scotland's supreme criminal court. When sitting at first instance as a trial court, it hears the most serious criminal cases, such as murder and rape. A single judge hears cases with a jury of 15 people. At first instance, it sits in cities and larger towns around Scotland, but as an appeal court, it sits mostly in Edinburgh. The High Court hears criminal appeals from first instance cases from the High Court itself, Sheriff Courts and Justice of the Peace Courts.

The majority of cases are dealt with in the country’s Sheriff Courts unless they are of sufficient seriousness to go to the Supreme Courts at first instance. Criminal cases are heard by a sheriff and a jury (solemn procedure), but can be heard by a sheriff alone (summary procedure). Civil matters are also heard by a sheriff sitting alone.

The Sheriff Appeal Court was established on 22 September 2015 to hear appeals arising out of summary criminal proceedings from both the sheriff and justice of the peace courts. The Bench generally comprises two or three appeal sheriffs, depending on the type of appeal to be considered. The Court also hears appeals against bail decisions made by a sheriff or a justice of the peace. These hearings are presided over by a single appeal sheriff. The criminal court sits in the courthouse at Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, while the civil court sits in Parliament House, Edinburgh. Civil appeals are heard by a bench of three appeal sheriffs sitting in Edinburgh, although procedural business, routine appeals and appeals from small claims and summary causes may be dealt with by a single appeal sheriff in the local sheriffdom. 

Less serious criminal matters are heard in Justice of the Peace Courts at first instance. The JP courts are located in the same cities as the Sheriff Courts, but there are additional JP courts in other locations throughout Scotland. From 2008 to early 2010, Justice of the Peace Courts gradually replaced the former District Courts which were operated by local authorities.

Information on raising actions, and further details on each court’s jurisdiction can be found on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service website. 

Other Courts in Scotland

The Court of the Lord Lyon - deals with matters of heraldry.

The Scottish Land Court - deals with disputes between landlord and tenant in relation to agricultural tenancies and crofting.

HMA v LM (Youth)

At the High Court in Glasgow today, 18 August 2017, Lord Woolman sentenced a youth to nine years’ detention after the accused was found guilty of the culpable homicide of Luke Wallace.

On sentencing, Lord Woolman made the following statement in court: 

“Luke Wallace died on 25 June last year. He was only 16 years old. 

“Last month you stood trial for his murder. At the close of the Crown case, the advocate depute reduced the charge to one of culpable homicide. 

“She made that decision in the light of all the evidence about the circumstances surrounding the crime. In particular regard was had to the conduct of Luke Wallace and his friend Josh immediately prior to the incident. 

“You stabbed Luke with a lock-back knife. He died several days later, despite the great efforts of the neighbours and police officers at the scene, the paramedics and those at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. 

“You claimed that Luke brought the knife to the scene, that it fell out of his pocket and that you acted in self-defence. 

“The jury, however, convicted you not only of culpable homicide, but also of (i) being in possession of a knife in a public place, and (ii) attempting to defeat the ends of justice by washing your own clothes and urging another eye-witness to burn hers. 

“I have carefully read the criminal justice social work report. I take into account everything said in mitigation. In particular: you were attacked first; you only inflicted one stab wound; you are now only 17 and have had a troubled upbringing; you are a first offender. 

“But there are other considerations. The criminal justice social work report states that you do not take full responsibility for the offence and that you present a moderate risk of reoffending. 

“Most importantly, I have regard to the seriousness of the crime. 

“Luke’s death has had a devastating effect on his family. His mother, Mrs Angela Wallace, has provided a Victim Impact Statement. 

“She tells of the enormous consequences it has had on her, her husband and their three other children. She speaks of their ‘intense grief and sadness’, that they are ‘totally heartbroken’ and ‘shattered beyond belief’. 

“This court has one clear message: the carrying and use of knives will not be tolerated. 

“Balancing all the factors, I have determined that even although you are 17 years old, only a custodial sentence will properly mark the gravity of your crimes. I therefore sentence you as follows: 

  • Charge 1 - one year’s detention  
  • Charge 2 - nine years’ detention 
  • Charge 3 - six months’ detention 

“All three sentences will run concurrently. The overall sentence is therefore one of nine years’ detention backdated to 27 July 2017.”