The office of sheriff principal is unique within the judicial structure of Scotland, and it cannot therefore readily be compared with any other judicial office. It is one of great antiquity, having existed continuously since around the 11th century. It has gradually developed over the centuries, and is still developing, into an office of some complexity and considerable weight.
Numbers and amalgamation
Until about the middle of the 19th century there were 30 sheriffs principal (or sheriffs, as they were then known). Of those sheriffs principal two (Glasgowand Edinburgh) were effectively full-time appointments while the remainder were part-time appointments filled by senior advocates in practice at theScottish Bar. Over the years there was a gradual amalgamation of sheriffdoms, with a consequential diminution in the number of sheriffs principal. The final amalgamation occurred in 1975 when Scotland was divided into six sheriffdoms, with each one presided over by a full-time sheriff principal. That remains the position at the present time.
The work of a sheriff principal is partly judicial and partly administrative, consisting broadly of the following:
A sheriff principal sometimes sits in criminal courts or conducts major fatal accident inquiries. However, a sheriff principal is primarily an appellate judge who sits alone to determine appeals from the decisions of sheriffs in civil matters. An appeal lies from the sheriff principal to the Inner House of the Court of Session and thereafter to the House of Lords.
In terms of the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1971 sheriffs principal are charged with a number of duties in respect of the courts for which they are responsible, including in particular a duty “to secure the speedy and efficient disposal of business in the sheriff courts of that sheriffdom”.
Order of precedence
By virtue of an Order of Precedence established by King Edward VII a sheriff principal, in his own sheriffdom, ranks in precedence immediately after the Royal family and the Lord Lieutenant of the County. For that reason sheriffs principal are from time to time expected, and are occasionally commanded, to be present at Royal and other ceremonial functions within their sheriffdoms.