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‘Force of nature’ sheriff retires after 17 years on the bench

Sheriff Graeme Napier.
Sheriff Graeme Napier.

A tough-talking, no-nonsense sheriff has been described as a “force of nature” as he retires after presiding over court cases for 17 years.

Sheriff Graeme Napier, who is known for never shying away from an argument, his sense of humour and ultimately his fairness, has hung up his gown and wig for the last time.

A titan of the legal system in the north-east, Sheriff Napier stepped down with a small, emotional, private celebration at Aberdeen Sheriff Court on Friday.

He had been a sheriff in the region for 17 years, and a procurator fiscal before that.

Sheriff Graeme Napier in the library at Aberdeen Sheriff Court.

The sheriff frequently made headlines during his time on the bench due to his tendency not to put up with any nonsense, and to tell it like it is.

‘This is just appalling’

In September last year, as the courts struggled to adapt to Covid, Sheriff Napier refused to hear any more cases by video link following a particularly distorted connection.

He said: “I’m not doing any more links by video. This is just appalling.

“I can’t deal with anything from prison by video link. It’s simply not working.”

When court resumed after lunch he announced: “I’m told we’re not doing full committals here because of the lack of technology.”

Procurator Fiscal Graeme Napier in Inverness.

In 2019, Sheriff Napier tore into a security firm over delays with accused persons in custody, with one prisoner being taken to the wrong court.

He demanded a senior member of staff attend the court to face him, and even threatened to find him in contempt.

Sheriff Napier said: “I would like one of them to give me an apology to the court. The delays the court has faced today are an absolute shambles.”

‘You’ve got one week to sort your life out’

And Sheriff Napier has also had encounters with celebrities. In 2014 he fined Ashley Walters, a former member of the band So Solid Crew, over an assault.

When dealing with a man caught speeding at 85mph on North Anderson Drive, Sheriff Napier took the opportunity to have his say on Aberdeen drivers.

He said there was “quite often” poor driving in the area because “Aberdonians seem to think because it’s a dual carriageway you can drive at all sorts of speeds”.

He added: “It’s subject to a 30mph and in some places 40mph limit.”

But despite being tough-talking, Sheriff Napier is also known for his fairness, and in 2010 in Lerwick he made an order to allow a convicted thief on a tag a half-hour curfew break to go to his local chipper.

Last year the sheriff called out a thief for lying and claiming he had breast cancer.

Sheriff Napier had initially deferred sentence on the man for reports after the claim, but at the sentencing hearing, he said to the man’s solicitor: “You told me he was suffering from breast cancer. I’m telling you the inquiries I’ve carried out make it quite clear he is not suffering from breast cancer.

“What your client is saying is he’s got breast cancer and he’s going to die if he doesn’t get treated. I’m saying that’s not true.”

In September, Sheriff Napier gave a teen, who drove a tractor away without permission, an ultimatum to “sort his life out” in one week or face a custodial sentence.

He told him: “You’re still a young, stupid man. You’ve got one week to sort your life out, otherwise you’ll be in a van going down south next Tuesday.”

In the end, he was given unpaid work, supervision and a curfew.

Sheriff Napier also recently hauled a number of jury duty no-shows into the dock where he gave them a grilling and dished out fines.

He told one of them: “We can’t run this case if people just willy-nilly don’t turn up.


A spokeswoman for the judiciary said: “Sheriff Napier said his farewells after 17 years as a sheriff in Grampian, Highland and Islands, latterly in Aberdeen.

“He thanked shrieval colleagues for their support, sheriff clerks and their staff for their uncomplaining assistance and agents for their professionalism and courtesy.”

Defence solicitors have heaped praise on the retiring sheriff and spoken of their sadness to see him leave.

Sheriff Graeme Napier.

In particular, the lawyers highlighted his compassion, fairness and humour.

‘A force of nature’

Stuart Murray, president of the Aberdeen Bar Association, said: “Sheriff Napier was a force of nature.

“He had his own inimitable style and his retirement will be a loss to all those that regularly appeared in front of him.

“He had the ability to see the humanity in cases and tried to reflect that in his disposals.

“He has been a strong advocate of fairness and justice in his time on the bench and has earned the respect of his peers and solicitors alike.

“The Aberdeen Bar Association wishes Sheriff Napier all the very best and no doubt he will have a long and productive retirement.”

‘His genuine compassion stands out’

Iain Hingston, of Hingston’s Law, said: “For me, what stands out about Sheriff Napier is his genuine compassion. That should not be mistaken for softness or the like because he can hit as hard as anybody sentencing-wise when merited.

“However, over many years, I have seen him place trust in many offenders and his trust is very often rewarded.

“The criminal justice system has a number of different aspects to it, one of which is the aim to avoid, where possible, re-offending.  Sheriff Napier’s input, scrutiny, care and often going the extra mile in many cases has resulted in people turning their lives around and for that alone, among many other reasons, he will be missed.

“I wish him the very best in his retirement.”

‘Sheriff Napier is known for no-nonsense approach’

Paul Barnett, a partner at George Mathers and Co, said: “It was certainly never dull appearing before Sheriff Napier.

“He was well known for his no-nonsense approach and was never slow to tell either prosecution or defence when they were falling short of the mark.

“Ultimately, however, he was best known for the compassion and humanity that he brought to bear in his court and his willingness to give the benefit of the doubt when there was a doubt to be had.

“He will certainly be much missed by my colleagues and I and we wish him the very best in his well-deserved retirement.”

‘He gave people a chance to prove themselves’

Gregory Kelly, a partner with Lefevre Litigation, said: “Sheriff Napier dispensed justice with humour and compassion over the years.

“He gave clients who deserved a chance an opportunity to prove themselves and dealt with a heavier hand to those who did not.

“I initially appeared before him in Lerwick Sheriff Court and latterly in Aberdeen and wish him a long and happy retirement.”

‘He will be greatly missed’

Ian Woodward-Nutt, of Woodward Lawson, said: “Whilst all court lawyers in Aberdeen will wish Sheriff Napier the very best in his retirement, he will be greatly missed.

“He was a diligent and hard-working judge.

“Sheriff Napier was particularly known for demonstrating the court’s obligation to protect the less advantaged in society.”

‘He was fair in his sentencing’

Mike Monro, a partner with Mackie and Dewar, said: “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, no matter what part of the court they are involved in, whether it be crown, defence, or indeed Scottish Courts administration.

“Everything that he ever does is always with the thought of trying to get the court running properly and dealing with matters which are important.

“Personally I’ve known Graeme Napier for many, many years. The first time I met him was when he was a fiscal here in Aberdeen in the 1990s.

Procurator Fiscal Graeme Napier in Inverness.

“He then became the fiscal in Inverness. Then in the early 2000s, he was appointed the sheriff in Lerwick and he was sheriffing there until about 2012-ish.

“If you get on the wrong side of him, he’d let you know. He would be fair as is necessary both to the professionals in the court and also any accused person. He was very fair in his sentencing.

“I think he’ll be missed in the courts.

“He’s got a keen sense of humour. In the past, he and I have been known to try and knock spots off each other, but always in the nicest possible way and never at the cost of my professionalism, his professionalism or my client’s wellbeing.”