Does Scotland need Sheriff Officers?
I don’t think so.
I think with several legislative changes, the requirement for Sheriff Officers could be removed and the process as to how debts are recovered could be radically reformed.
This I believe would significantly reduce the costs involved for those seeking to recover debts, and for those who owe debt.
Scottish Diligence Statistics
The reason for me believing this has been brought on by the recent release of Scotland’s Diligence Statistics for 2018-19, which cover the types of legal debt recovery procedures that are used by Sheriff Officers.
These statistics bring into sharp focus the issue of how Council Tax debts in Scotland are being collected.
What the statistics show is that almost 88% of all work carried out by Scotland’s equivalent of Bailiffs, Sheriff Officers, is to recover Council Tax debts, and probably adds close to £30 million onto those debts in the form of Sheriff Officer fees (Unanswered questions over local authority debt statistics – The Herald; 18th December 2019)
The type of work carried out by Sheriff Officers on behalf of Scottish councils includes:
- 201,026 Charge for Payments being served;
- 71,835 Earning Arrestments being executed; and
- 167,365 Bank Arrestments being executed.
Now this is concerning, as what the statistics also show is that the use of Sheriff Officers to recover debt by non-local authority creditors has fallen by 24.3% since 2011-12, but over the same period Scottish local authorities increased their use by 27.8%.
Also, in 2018-19, this continued with the use of Sheriff Officers by non-local authority creditors falling by 42%, whilst local authority use increased by 15%.
Which begs the question are Sheriff Officers advising Local Authorities to take a more aggressive approach to debt recovery to compensate for the loss of work by other creditors?
It also raises the question whether a radical overhaul of how Diligence (legal debt recovery) is executed in Scotland could significantly reduce the amount of fees that are being applied to the debts of those in default?
Scottish Councils should have their powers to recover debts increased
Now, a simple answer to this problem may simply be to increase the power of Local Authorities to recover debts.
Take, for example, Direct Earning Arrestments. These are types of wage arrestments that are used by Local Authorities and the Department of Works and Pensions for benefit overpayments. They are effectively wage arrestments.
However, unlike Earning Arrestments (which are governed by the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987), there is no requirement for Local Authorities to use Sheriff Officers to execute a Direct Earning Arrestment. They simply send the Arrestment Schedule to the Bank themselves.
This begs the question why for Earning Arrestments, we could not allow local authorities to do the same ? If they can do it for one type of wage arrestment, why not for another, removing the requirement to use a private sector Sheriff Officer.
Which then begs the question, why then not also allow them to do the same for Bank Arrestments?
And if we are going to allow them to do that, then why not also allow them to send Charge for Payments by post?
This would arguably save tens of millions of pounds being added onto Council Tax Bills in the form of Sheriff Officer fees.
Council’s would not be alone in having such enforcement powers. As mentioned above, the Department of Works and Pensions also have the power to execute Direct Earning Arrestments without using Sheriff Officers.
The Child Support Agency and Child Maintenance Agency also have similar powers when it comes to Direct Earning Orders for child maintenance payments.
But not all debts are for Council Tax
However, this raises the question what about other debts, as not all debts are for Council Tax and not all debt recovery procedures are those mentioned above.
Well there is a simple answer to that question, in that these remaining types of debts and procedures could be recovered and executed by Court Enforcement Officers employed by the Courts.
In Northern Ireland such a model already exists where it is Court Officers rather than private Bailiffs that recover debts.
Court Enforcement Officers could therefore be employed on a full cost recovery basis by the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service to recover these other types of debts and to carry out other types of enforcement procedures, for both Local Authority and non-Local Authority debts. They could also take on the role of Fine Enforcement Officers, who already exist in every court and can also execute bank and earning arrestments without having to use Sheriff Officers.
As all this would be done on a cost-only recovery basis, I believe it would help reduce the cost of recovering debts in Scotland for both those in debt and those that are owed debts.
It would also bring forward some radical reform to how debts are recovered in Scotland, which inevitably will have to occur anyway.
The simple fact is, if our entire system of enforcing Court Orders is being susidised by a form of Local Government taxation that none of the major political parties support, then reform will eventually be inevitable, as will how debts are recovered in Scotland.
It would seem logical to me, to begin that process of reform, sooner rather than later as currently Sheriff Officers have become overly dependent on Local Authorities for work and this is only adding to the misery of those struggling with Council Tax debts, as they are disproportionately bearing the burden of funding this no longer sustainable industry.