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Dundee Sheriff Court Report

National Records of Scotland (NRS) receives regular deposits of records from the Scottish sheriff courts, the earliest of which is from Cupar Sheriff Court written in 1515.

Early development

The sheriff was a royal official appointed to help the king establish control in the localities. The first mention of a sheriff in Scotland occurs in the reign of David I (1124-53). Sheriffs performed a wide variety of duties, administrative, financial, military as well as judicial. Judicially, the sheriffs dealt with both civil and criminal cases and appeals as well as first-time cases. Unfortunately, the Crown's practice of appointing powerful barons to the office meant the barons used the office to profit themselves, not the king. Increasingly the office became hereditary. A further problem was the development of a competing system of courts, principally the courts of regality or 'little kingdoms' in which Scottish lords could try any crime except treason and in whose running the sheriffs played no part.

The sixteenth century to the Act of Union

The period is characterised by the frustrated attempts of the Crown to remedy the abuses and inefficiencies of the sheriffs. An act of 1506 declared that the king had the power to create sheriffdoms as he saw fit. A further act of 1540 attempted with some success to professionalise the workings of the court by ordering that the sheriffs follow the procedure of the Court of Session. In 1587 and intermittently throughout the following century, the Crown tried to use justices of the peace to bring law and order to the localities. Unfortunately, the relative weakness of the Crown in Scotland allied to the intense conservatism of the Scottish legal system meant that most of these reforms lacked teeth. The granting of heritable sheriffdoms actually increased during the reign of Charles II (1660-85) in gratitude for his restoration to the throne.

The Act of Union to 1975

By 1700 sheriffs heard most of the civil and criminal cases in Scotland, yet 21 out of 33 sheriffdoms were held on a hereditary basis. The government lacked the will to intervene until the Jacobite rising of 1745-6, which prompted it, from 1748, to abolish most hereditary offices and heritable (non-royal) jurisdictions. Salaried sheriff deputes who were qualified advocates (members of the Scottish Bar) were now placed in charge of sheriff courts, aided by their own deputies, the sheriffs-substitute. Neither office was new but they came to form the backbone of the county judicial system. Although the criminal powers of sheriffs were reduced during the nineteenth century, particularly in some types of capital cases, the growth of the Scottish population, allied to growing pressures on the Court of Session, Scotland's supreme civil court, led to new legal and administrative responsibilities being given to sheriffs. Jurisdiction in small debt cases, testamentary matters, maritime cases and bankruptcies were all added to the sheriffs' workload during the nineteenth century. The deputes and substitutes were the forerunners of the modern sheriffs and sheriffs principal who currently preside over 6 sheriffdoms and 49 sheriff court districts. Sheriffs have continued to acquire new functions during the twentieth century, most notably in recent times in the field of divorce.

The records

Sheriff courts in Scotland are second only in importance to the supreme civil and criminal courts. Their records, dating from the 16th century, contain an enormous range of civil, criminal and administrative material (material that is often overlooked). A summary of the main records is listed below.

Court books, registers and processes

Brief details of cases coming before the court as well as records of administrative matters. Processes later than 1860 are weeded in terms of a statutory instrument.

Workmen's compensation

The Workmen's Compensation Act, 1897 (c.37) awarded compensation to employees injured in the course of employment. The system was ended by the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act, 1946 (c.67).

Fatal accident inquiries

In Scotland Fatal Accident Inquiries have been held since 1895 into fatal accidents in the workplace and cases of sudden death where public interest was involved, but not into deaths by suicide. Not all records of sheriff court fatal accident inquiries have survived. The records of each inquiry are gradually being individually listed as part of a recataloguing programme. For more information see our guide on Fatal Accident Inquiry records.

Sequestration records

Sheriff courts were given jurisdiction along with the Court of Session in bankruptcy procedure (sequestration) by the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act, 1839 (c.41). For more information see our guide on Court of Session sequestrations.

Criminal records

Records of criminal cases are in the main series of registers and processes until the end of the 19th century. The records also contain the registers of Juvenile Courts set up by the 1908 Children Act (c.67).

Registers of deeds and protests

These contain legal documents registered for preservation and execution. In older courts they generally start in the seventeenth century. For more information see our guide on deeds.

Commissary records

From the 1820s wills and related papers were registered at the sheriff courts. The registers contain wills, inventories of the deceased's goods and the court's confirmation of the executors. For more information see our guide on wills and testaments.

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