What happens at a civil court case

Last updated: 21 May 2018

Issues like debt, housing disputes and bankruptcy are called civil cases and are dealt with in either the Court of Session or the sheriff court.

Civil cases also include cases involving:

  • divorce
  • dissolution of civil partnerships
  • parental rights and responsibilities
  • adoption
  • road crash compensation

You might be a witness in a civil court case if:

  • you started the case
  • someone else has started the case against you
  • you have some other formal interest in the case
  • you've seen or heard something in connection with the case
  • you have information about someone involved in the case

How a case is prepared

The lawyer representing the party bringing the action forward will:

  • interview their client
  • interview any other relevant witnesses
  • make a decision on whether there's enough evidence to proceed to a court case

If the lawyer decides to go ahead with the case, they'll approach the court offices to start the case formally.

Civil court papers will be served on the party against whom the case is raised, and any other party who may have an interest in the case.

If the case is disputed, the court will fix a date for hearing evidence. This means witnesses will be expected to go to court and tell the court what they know.

Proving a case

In most civil cases, the party or parties bringing the case forward need to prove it's more likely than not that whatever they are claiming is true.

This is known as 'the balance of probabilities' and is less strict than the 'beyond reasonable doubt' proof that's needed in criminal cases.

Where cases take place

Sheriff courts

Sheriff courts deal with most civil court cases. They are located in most parts of Scotland and the sheriff is a qualified advocate or solicitor.

The sheriff will hear the case and make the final decision alone.

Court of Session

The Court of Session in Edinburgh is the highest civil court in Scotland. It has 2 parts: the Outer House and Inner House.

The Outer House deals with complex divorce or civil partnership cases, and cases when a large amount of money is being claimed for compensation in personal injury claims or broken agreements.

The Inner House deals with appeals, if you aren't happy with the decision made in the sheriff court or the Outer House.

Cases in the Court of Session are normally heard and decided by a judge sitting alone, although sometimes a jury is involved and makes the decision.

UK Supreme Court

If you're not satisfied with the decision of the Inner House of the Court of Session you may be able to appeal to the UK Supreme Court.

This is the final court of appeal for all civil cases.

Appealing a case to the UK Supreme Court can be very expensive.

People in the courtroom

The judge or sheriff

The judge or sheriff is an expert in the law and is in charge of everything that happens in the court room.

They'll make sure everything is done fairly within the law and that the court rules and legal procedures are followed. They also have a duty to protect the interests of all people involved in the case, including the witnesses.

The lawyers

Normally there will be a lawyer representing each of the parties to a civil case, unless any of the parties are representing themselves.

They'll ask questions in court so the witnesses can give their evidence in their answers. Lawyers appearing in court may be solicitors or advocates.

The parties

These are the people:

  • who started the case
  • who have had the case started against them

Party litigants

Some people in civil cases decide to represent themselves instead of using a lawyer.

The clerk of court

This person is responsible for assisting the judge or sheriff and keeping the court papers and records.

The court officer

The court officer assists the court and lets the witnesses know when it's their turn to give evidence. In the courtroom they may show a witness different pieces of evidence, like photographs.

The public and the press

The public may sometimes be excluded (banned) from the courtroom. The press is usually allowed to stay. In some cases they may be prevented from publishing anything that may lead to the identification of the parties or witnesses involved. In exceptional cases the judge might order for the courtroom to be completely cleared.

The end of the case

Some cases last only a day, others can go on for several days or longer. This usually depends on how many witnesses there are and how long each witness takes to give their evidence.

When the evidence of all witnesses has been heard, the judge/sheriff (or jury) must make their decision.

If you're not at court when the outcome is decided, you can speak to the person who cited you as a witness to see if you can get information.