What goes on there? Introduction by the Sheriff Clerk
Although only a small proportion of the population will ever have cause to enter the courthouse, most people are familiar with the business of this (and other) Sheriff Courts through reports in the local press, and on the radio and television. It has to be said, however, the the reality of court cases is often quite different from fictionalized stories on TV !
This leaflet is intended to provide some general information about the Sheriff Court, and what sort of things we do.
Anyone who has an interest in being shown round the courthouse will be made very welcome – as individuals or as part of a group. However, we would ask that they contact us first to arrange a date and time to do that.
We also have a newsletter, which gives further information about the operation of the court and those who work there. Copies of it are available on request from the Sheriff Clerk’s Office, either in paper form or electronically as a “Word” document.
Further information on the Sheriff Courts and the Scottish Court Service (SCS) in general can be found on our website, which is: www.scotcourts.gov.uk .
A map, showing the locations of the Sheriff Courts is shown on the last page of this leaflet.
The work of the court
There are forty-nine Sheriff Courts in Scotland. The work of the Sheriff Courts can be divided into three broad categories: Criminal, Civil and Commissary. The nature of criminal business is fairly obvious and is what most people think about when a Sheriff Court is mentioned. Civil business relates to recovery of debts; divorces; custody of children; adoptions, etc. Commissary business is to do with appointing executors, who deal with the property of people who have died.
The administration of all the court business is done by the Sheriff Clerk and his staff of 6. They are employed by the Scottish Court Service, which is part of the Scottish Executive. Occasionally there are opportunities for new staff to join us and adverts are placed in the local papers.
The courthouse dates from the 1830s and was designed by Thomas Brown, who also designed the courthouses at Dornoch and Stonehaven.
The former prison and police station was built in 1842, with an addition in 1845, with the purpose of complementing the existing Sheriff Court House facilities. About 60 years later, the opening of Inverness prison led to the closure of the Dingwall prison.
A few years ago the Police moved to a new building located near to the Council Offices. The old prison/police building was sold and has been converted to private housing. It is interesting to see that several of the windows there still have bars on them!
The whole of the court building has been built on made-up ground, which has the water table not far below. There are no cellars as they would be under water!
Some subsidence of the building took place soon after it was built and today, if it is viewed from the nearby railway bridge, a definite rearwards lean can be seen in the tower above what is now the main entrance.
Thankfully, no further movement has taken place since that time and we are assured that it is 100% safe! In some rooms, however, when walking about there is a definite slope to the floor!
In recent years further changes to the building have taken place, to accommodate more staff and make things more comfortable for witnesses and jurors.
However, one area where improvements have proved to be difficult to put into place is the jury box in the courtroom …..
The area for the jury was built when people were physically smaller than they are now. They now comment that there is not enough room! We are trying to find ways to make more space for them but this is a “listed building” and there are lots of restrictions on what alterations are allowed.
We have, however, been able to use technology in the hearing of court cases and have equipment in the courtroom to view CCTV pictures, playback audio tapes, images on compact disks, PC files etc.
In the office we have been using PCs for almost 20 years, and they are now all networked together and linked to other courts.
The post of Sheriff has existed for hundreds of years. In the 12th century, for example, the Sheriff was appointed as a local representative of the King. He collected royal revenues, organised the local military forces and was responsible for preservation of law and order. The office of Sheriff became heritable, passing from father to son and was saleable. Not really an ideal basis for administering justice fairly! In 1747 things changed and since then Sheriffs have been appointed on merit and deal only with legal matters.
Since 2002 the Sheriff at Dingwall has been Alasdair MacFadyen. Although Dingwall is his principal court, he also sits at Inverness and Portree Sheriff Courts.
Dingwall, like all other courts, has over the years dealt with many thousands of cases, many of which have been routine, but there have been some of more particular interest.
Dingwall has seen several cases over the last 10 years or so of normally law-abiding citizens being brought to court for:
refusing to pay the poll tax
being Skye Bridge Toll protestors
objecting to the planting of genetically-modified crops and (more than once) –
the so-called “Naked Rambler” – we’ve seen quite a lot of him !
Did you know .... ?
In Scotland the Sheriffs do NOT use gavels (the thing that looks like a small mallet and which appears to be much loved by judges on American TV demanding “silence in court”).
Anyone between the ages of 18 and 65 is likely to be called for jury duty some time during their lives. They are not paid to do it but if they lose wages or benefits by attending we will compensate them for that.
Anyone over the age of 14 is entitled to come along and listen to court cases. You might see someone you know! The court does not sit every day, so please check with us before you come.
The court at Dingwall deals with about 1500 cases of different types every year. In the most serious criminal cases (about the top 1%) the cases will be heard before a jury.
It is against the law to take photographs, video or a sound recording anywhere inside the building – unless special permission has been given. Anyone who tries it is likely to be arrested.
Mobile phones are banned from the courtroom. If one goes off it is likely to be confiscated and the person could be jailed for “Contempt of Court”.
All Sheriffs wear a wig, which is made of horsehair. All court officials wear a black gown and must bow to the Sheriff when he comes into court and when he leaves again.