Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms

Who are Scotland's Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms?

Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms in Scotland are Officers of the Court and should not be confused with Bailiffs, who are enforcement officers for the Courts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The function that they perform for the Courts in Scotland is to enforce the Courts Orders.  They, therefore, perform an important role, as without them, many court orders would go unenforced.  Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms are not, however, employed by public bodies like police officers, but are employed by private firms.  It is important to note, however, it is not the private firms that are authorised by the Courts to enforce the Courts orders, but the individual Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms themselves.  It is also important to note that as they act with the authority of the Court, preventing them from doing their  job can constitute contempt of court, which is an offence that can be punished by either a fine or a prison sentence. It is therefore, important not to obstruct either Sheriff Officers or Messenger at Arms from doing their job.

Sheriff Officers enforce the orders of the Sheriff Court, whilst Messenger at Arms enforce the order of the Court of Session.

Who regulates Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arm?

Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms are strictly regulated  and can only act to the extent which they are allowed to by the court and the law.

This means, for example, should they try and force entry into someone's home, they must have the authority to do so, which means in relation to recovering a debt, they must have an Exceptional Attachment Order granted. Where they do have one they must present it to the person before trying to access the premises, unless the premises are empty, in which case they can open shut and lock-fast places.

However, where it is believed an Officer has exceeded their authority, or behaved in a manner which brings themselves, their profession or the Court into disrepute, it is possible to make a complaint.

When making a complaint about a Sheriff Officer or a Messenger at Arms, there are two options:

  • The first option is to complain to their professional body, which is the Society of Messenger at Arms and Sheriff Officers. There contact details can be found here;
  • Alternatively, a complaint can also be made to the Court whose authority they were acting upon.  In the case of a Sheriff Officer this means the Sheriff Principal of the local Sheriff Court; whilst in the case of a Messenger at Arms, this means the Lord President's Office.

What Powers do They Have?

Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms normally enforce the payments of debts using an area of law known as diligence.  Sheriff Officers are also involved in evictions and repossessions.

Some examples of types of diligence that Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms can execute are:

  • Charge for Payments
  • Earning Arrestments
  • Actions of Arrestment and Furthcoming
  • Attachments
  • Exceptional Attachment Order
  • Money Attachments

Do Sheriff Officer firms always have the power of the Court?

In Scotland some firms who employ Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms, also act as debt collectors.  This is an additional service they offer and should not be confused with the functions of their employees as Court Officers.  When acting as debt collectors, Sheriff Officer firms have no additional power to those held by other firms involved in debt collection. They are not allowed to remove property and cannot arrest wages. They cannot enter into someone's home without their permission.

These dual roles, however, can cause confusion, particularly as local Sheriff Officer firms are usually well known in local areas, so people often assume they are acting as Sheriff Officers or Messenger at Arms.

It is, therefore, important, when you are contacted by a sheriff officer firm to ask in what capacity they are acting in: as Sheriff Officers or debt collectors.  The reason being, is if they are acting as debt collectors, then they have no legal powers to enforce a debt in the way they can as Sheriff Officers or Messenger at Arms. They can only ask you  make a payment, telephone you or send you letters.  They must also follow guidance which is laid down by the Financial Conduct Authority, which regulates debt collection practices in the UK.

Where you have a complaint about a Sheriff Officer firm, if they are acting as debt collectors, the correct organisation to make any complaint to is not the Court or the Society of Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms, but the Financial Conduct Authority. Their complaint procedure can be found here.