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.


At Lerwick Sheriff Court, Sheriff Napier sentenced Virginia Creggy to four years imprisonment after she pled guilty to supplying a Class A drug in Lerwick on 7 April 2011.

On sentencing Sheriff Napier made the following statement in court:

“Miss Creggy, as you now seem to realise, you have pled guilty to the very serious crime of being concerned in the supply of 160.8 grammes or £21, 000 in value of the Class A drug heroin, a drug that has blighted many young lives both in the area of your home and here in Shetland. A number of those people, some on the road to recovery are appearing before me today, for reviews of their progress. Many more are still addicted and provide an easy market for those who are happy to make financial profit out of the destruction of these individual’s lives.

It is of course well known that Shetland is seen as a lucrative market by organised criminal gangs in the Merseyside area you come from even if from time to time a consignment is lost to the investigating authorities.

I appreciate that your role in this was limited to acting as a courier and the Indictment to which you have pled guilty relates to one day only. You say that you were not to benefit financially from this involvement but of course that is not the case. You were to have your own (and possibly also your sister’s) drug debts wiped out. That was the financial incentive to you. Anyone who becomes involved in the illicit drug trade as you have in the past, even if your involvement was related to Cocaine and not heroin, must know that if you run up a tab for drugs there will at some point be a day of reckoning when if you do not pay there may be repercussions. It is in that context that I place the threats you have referred to and which encouraged you to undertake this trip.

I have been dealing with couriers from Merseyside for about the past 3 years and it is only in the relatively recent past that I have become aware of the predominance of female couriers. I am not sure if there is any particular reason for that, whether for example it is thought that such a person will attract a lower sentence if caught. Some of those individuals are particularly vulnerable. Many like you have children. Whilst there are some elements of vulnerability in your back ground it is as nothing compared to that of many I deal with. Many who appear before me in your situation have taken advantage of time spent in custody to deal with their own addiction problems or to further their education and create opportunities for them on release. As far s I can see you do not have any addiction problems to deal with but you may be able to put time in custody to good use making up for your interrupted past education.

I would be failing in my duty if I did not mark the seriousness of your offending with a significant sentence of imprisonment.

As I said in my report to the High Court in the case of HMA v Darren Gear, when a discounted sentence of 42 months was supported for his involvement in the supply of £8000 of heroin (which he was holding for a short period) the record was not the predominant feature, it was the quantity involved. In that case I also referred to the decision of the High Court in the case of Dempsey in 2001 in which a sentence of 5 years imprisonment was supported in relation to 10.2 grammes of heroin, for an accused with no previous record. You of course have a record, albeit not extensive. Of more significance is that the quantity of heroin was 16 times that in 1049 individual wraps. I have accordingly chosen as my starting point for sentence 6 years. Although this is a straightforward case to which there could have been no conceivable defence I will nonetheless discount that by 1/3 to recognise the early plea. You are accordingly sentenced to 4 years imprisonment back dated to 8 April 2011”.