A day in the life of a Sheriff Principal

The work of a sheriff principal has changed considerably since I began practising as a lawyer more than 30 years ago in that the range and variety of functions has expanded considerably as a result of a number of legislative changes.  As the head of one of Scotland’s six  sheriffdoms my time is divided between preparing for and hearing appeals, presiding over inquiries and the considerable administrative challenges that are involved in ensuring the speedy and efficient disposal of business in my area.

There is no typical day for me but most days I arrive at the court building around 8.30 and start going through my emails.  They are mostly from the various agencies, which play a part in the criminal justice system, about court business or appeals that I am dealing with.  A sheriff principal does not usually deal with criminal cases so my primary function is to hear civil appeals from the sheriff courts in my sheriffdom.   I deal with around 90 such appeals every year but  I am also required to examine each case to determine whether the appeal is competent, how long it is likely to take and  that all the appropriate procedures have been complied with.  This morning I am meeting one of the clerks of court to discuss a number of appeals that are coming up as I need to confirm the availability of parties to the case and that the necessary courtrooms have been allocated.  In some cases I will travel to the court from which the appeal originates as that helps to minimise expense for all those involved.  Since 2003 sheriffs principal are obliged to hear appeals from the Mental Health Tribunal and in 2005 we took over responsibility for hearing appeals in licensing matters from sheriffs.    

Sheriffs principal also hear fatal accident inquiries where the circumstances of the case raise significant issues of public interest.   At lunchtime today I am meeting the area procurator fiscal to discuss two forthcoming inquiries which will be held in my sheriffdom .  As I will need to allocate these to sheriffs I want to firstly establish the likely duration and complexity of these cases before I decide on the location.  One involves the death of an elderly woman in a care home and the other concerns a young man who died following an accident on a construction site.  We will almost certainly fix a procedural hearing in advance of the Inquiry starting to hear evidence.

I work in a particularly busy sheriffdom so the responsibility for making sure that things operate efficiently and smoothly is a considerable challenge on a day to day basis.  The unexpected can have a major impact on the work schedule.  Today one sheriff has been taken into hospital for emergency surgery and another sheriff has to attend the funeral of a close family member later in the week.  Two other sheriffs have scheduled annual leave so that reduces the resources I can call on considerably.  This requires urgent attention so I have requested a meeting after court at 4.00pm with the clerk, the sheriffdom business manager and two senior sheriffs to discuss how we handle this.  I was intending to complete a complex written judgment this afternoon but that will have to wait until later this evening as I do not want affected cases to be delayed unnecessarily this week.   

As sheriff principal I maintain a general oversight of the administration of the sheriffdom.  This includes court programming and the allocation of sheriffs to each court.   While the bench work is considerable I also have to factor in some writing time for sheriffs to complete their written judgments.   Everyone would like more time for this so I find myself doing a lot of juggling and negotiating to make sure that there are no undue delays in getting these judgments issued.   The decision of the court can have a major impact on parties to a case and I don’t want to add to people’s anxiety through delays at this end.

Keeping the courts running smoothly involves a lot of close liaison with different people who all contribute individually to the process. The procurator fiscal, social workers, police, court staff and the local bar association all play a key role in the day to day business of the courts.   I have regular meetings with each of them and together we try to ensure that we anticipate problems in advance and keep on top of the demands of juggling so many competing issues.  It is not only the flow of business in sheriff courts that I am responsible for but now I also manage the justice of the peace courts as well.  Some days it feels like I am trying to draw up a very complicated bus timetable.

It is 5.00 and my secretary has just placed two large files on my desk and printed out a couple of urgent emails which require my attention before I leave tonight.   One file contains the details of a complaint about a sheriff by a man who does not agree with the sheriff’s decision in his case.   As this relates to a judicial decision the only option is for the complainer to appeal the decision through the normal channel. However I have to investigate each complaint in detail and respond accordingly.  It is time consuming but it’s all part of the job.   The other file contains the papers for tomorrow’s meeting of the Local Criminal Justice Board which as sheriff principal I chair.  One email concerns an accused who assaulted a Reliance security guard in one of my courts and the other one concerns an urgent  request to reschedule an appeal hearing that I was due to start later in the week because the agent for the appellant is involved in a  trial that has overrun .  More juggling I am afraid.

I respond to the urgent emails and a few others that are waiting for a response.  One is a request from the head of judicial communications for a joint meeting with the BBC to discuss a request to film in one of the courts.  It is important that the public understand how the courts operate so I am happy to agree to this.

I manage to finish up about 6.00 and decide to walk home as it is a nice evening.  The walk helps to clear my head before I get home and catch up with my family.  That written judgment is still waiting, so once I have had dinner and relaxed for a bit I will do some work on it before reading over those papers for tomorrow’s meeting.  

Being a sheriff principal is indeed challenging.  Not only do you need extensive legal experience but you have to be a skilled negotiator, be able to respond to the unexpected and above all be as diplomatic as possible.  But despite all that I do enjoy the job immensely and cannot imagine doing anything else now.