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.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) is responsible for providing the staff, buildings and technology to support Scotland’s courts, the work of the independent judiciary, the courts’ Rules Councils and the Office of the Public Guardian. The Board of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service is chaired by the Lord President. Visit the SCTS website for details of daily court business including court locations, contact numbers, rules, guidance and advice for both professional users and members of the public.

Find out more about attending court

A day in the life of


Judges spend a great deal of time working on cases before and after court and have to do a lot of preparation for the day ahead. Read about a typical day for a judge.