Sheriff courts hear civil cases as a bench trial without a jury, and make determinations and judgments alone. However, the specialist all-Scotland Sheriff Personal Injury Court (based in Edinburgh) has the ability to hear cases at proof with a jury of twelve. Sheriff courts hear criminal trials on complaint as a bench trial for summary offences, and as a trial with a jury of fifteen for indictable offences. Where a person is convicted following a case heard on complaint they can be sentenced to a maximum of twelve months imprisonment and/or a £10,000 fine, and in solemn cases 5 years imprisonment or an unlimited fine.
Judgments of the sheriff courts in criminal offences handled through summary procedures, and civil cases handled through small claims and summary process, can be appealed to the Sheriff Appeal Court. Criminal offences heard on indictment through solemn procedure are appealed to the High Court of Justiciary. Other civil actions are appealed to the Inner House of the Court of Session.
Sheriff courts deal with a myriad of legal procedures which include:
The office of sheriff dates from the early days of the Scottish monarchy. Generally, one of the more powerful local lords in each county was appointed and the office became hereditary in his family. The original purpose of the sheriff was to exercise and preserve the King's authority against the rival powers of the local lords and the sheriff became the local representative of the King in all matters, judicial and administrative. The sheriff dispensed the King's justice in his county in the Sheriff Court. The hereditary sheriff later delegated his judicial functions to a trained lawyer called a sheriff-depute. The Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746 abolished the office of hereditary sheriff and the sheriff-depute soon became sheriff principal.:734:185–6
At first, only the sheriff of the Lothians and Peebles (who sat at Edinburgh) and the sheriff of Lanarkshire (who sat at Glasgow) were full-time appointments.:734 Since the part-time sheriff-depute was not compelled to reside within his sheriffdom and could carry on his practice as advocate, it became common for a depute to appoint a sheriff-substitute who acted in his absence. Over time, the judicial duties of the depute were entirely assumed by the substitute and the depute became a judge of appeal from the decisions of his substitute.:186