Sheriff principal

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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.

The sheriff principal holds several other offices ex officio, including Sheriff of Chancery (disposes of petitions for rights of succession to land and intestate estates; see Chancery (Scotland)), Commissioner of Northern Lighthouses, General Commissioner of Income Tax, member of the Sheriff Court Rules Council, the Advisory Council on Messengers-at-Arms and Sheriff Officers, the Criminal Justice Forum, the Security Service Tribunal, the Intelligence Services Tribunal, and various other bodies.[1]

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 (Glasgow and Edinburgh) were effectively full-time appointments while the remainder were part-time appointments filled by senior advocates; members of the Faculty of Advocates. 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:

  • conventional judicial duties in the Sheriff courts;
  • judicial and quasi-judicial work arising under various statutes;
  • administrative functions in relation to the courts within a sheriff principal’s sheriffdom;
  • miscellaneous statutory functions including powers of appointment;
  • other powers of appointment;
  • statutory and other appointments and functions by virtue of holding office as sheriff principal;
  • miscellaneous advisory and consultative functions;
  • ceremonial functions.

In terms of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 all of the sheriffs principal are Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses and serve on the Northern Lighthouse Board.

Judicial functions

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.

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. 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.

Orders of precedence in the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Lord Lieutenants
United Kingdom Order of Precedence
Succeeded by
The Rt. Hon. Kenneth Clarke QC MP

See also

External links


  1. "The office of sheriff principal in Scotland" (PDF). Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland. Retrieved 3 August 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>