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Scottish courts and the law
Scottish courts and the law

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1.3.4 The role of a Sheriff

A day in the life of a Sheriff:

‘A typically busy day in the sheriff court lies ahead – three sentencing hearings in the first half-hour, followed by a full day of criminal trials. The tight scheduling means I arrive at work early and read the social enquiry reports I previously called for in the three sentencing cases.

At 9.30am, only a handful of members of the public are in court – along with the lawyers, court officials, security guards and the man in his 20s who first appeared before me three weeks ago. Convicted of serious assault after slashing a stranger from ear to mouth, I was obliged to call for a report because he has not previously served a custodial sentence. Taking everything into account, I sentence him to 40 months’ imprisonment plus four months for bail aggravations. With a 25% reduction for pleading guilty and avoiding a trial, he will serve 33 months in prison.

The next case involves a 24-year-old man who was caught with cocaine valued at £5,000 and £1,800 in cash when police searched his house following a tip-off. Again, I called for a report because he has not previously served a jail sentence.  Having read the report, I conclude that he should serve 18 months in prison. His girlfriend shouts her disapproval but I defer to judicial deafness..

With the clock approaching 10am, a shoplifter in her 20s, who stole £600 worth of goods from a high street shop, appears for sentencing. She doesn’t have a drug habit – as many do – and is clearly operating as a professional thief. She has previously had probation and community service. On this occasion, I imprison her for six months.

The summary trials – which involve the sheriff sitting without a jury to deal with less serious crimes – start on time. They involve a range of offences: three pub stewards facing charges of causing severe injury; a man who has breached his community service order; a couple who were drunk and caused a breach of the peace during hospital visiting time (unfortunately, an increasingly common occurrence); and, dangerous driving. All plead guilty, with sentence imposed in court or a date set for a further hearing.

Towards the end of the morning, I hear an unusual case brought under property misdescriptions legislation, which essentially prohibits estate agents making false or misleading statements about a property for sale. In this instance, the agent has failed to ensure that the description of a flat is correct – it has one room in total rather than a four-roomed flat – and so I impose a fine of £500.

“During lunch in the sheriffs’ dining room, I chat to colleagues about the morning’s business. We discuss the fact that it can be difficult to assess the correct level of fine in unusual cases such as the property misdescriptions one I have just heard.

Back in court in the afternoon, it quickly becomes clear that all the criminal trials have been resolved earlier than expected, not least because three were unable to go ahead: one because the accused did not turn up, and so a warrant was issued for his arrest; two because of the absence of witnesses, which happens when those involved live chaotic lifestyles.

Given that sheriffs in Scotland have such a wide jurisdiction – hearing criminal trials, civil proofs and some appeals – I am asked by the court liaison officer, who controls scheduling, if I can step in to hear a civil proof. Reading the papers, I find out that it involves a dispute over warranties given by the seller of a nursing home. The claim by the purchaser is for £500,000. The background to the case is set out but I adjourn around 4.20pm because a witness giving lengthy evidence seems to be in need of a break.

Back in my chambers, I am faced with writing both a civil judgment and a report for an appeal to the High Court against a sentence I imposed. I always try to write appeal reports within 48 hours so it takes priority. I’m leaving around 5.30pm – earlier than usual because I’m going to the football tonight – but before doing so, I check my emails and look through my notes on the nursing home case, which is likely to last all day tomorrow and possibly the next day.

As a sheriff no two days are the same and you can never be sure what you will be faced with when you come to work.  But in many ways that is what makes the job so interesting for me.  I have never regretted becoming a sheriff and look forward to many more years on the bench’.

(Judicial Office for Scotland, n.d.)