Should you be worried about Sheriff Officers?

Should you be worried about Sheriff Officers?

No, you shouldn't be, but nor should you ignore them.

In Scotland, even the mention of the phrase Sheriff Officers can strike fear into people. It conjures up images of people being evicted and of the poll tax. Often they are confused with Bailiffs, who work in other parts of the UK and feature on programmes like "If you don't pay, we'll take it away".

Should you ignore Sheriff Officers?

Sheriff Officers should not be ignored. They are Officers of the Court and as such have powers normal debt collectors don't. They occasionally will give you the impression they can do things they are not allowed to, but this is just to try and pressurise you into making offers of payment.

It's also not unusual for the language in their letters to be misleading. They will say they are visiting your home, and this may lead you to believe they can come into your home. This is almost never the case.

Their primary role, however, is to enforce the orders of the court, so if they have contacted you, you cannot ignore them.

How to deal with Sheriff Officers

The important thing is don't panic. Just because they state in a letter that they are coming  to your home, doesn't mean they will.  Nor does it mean they are going to come into your home, unless you invite them in.  Most likely they will want to hand you a legal letter or post it through your letter box.

Alternatively, they might try and speak to you and ask how you propose to deal with your debts.

The best thing to do is to seek advice from an advice agency, such as your local Citizen Advice Bureau and tell them this is what you are doing. Also tell them your adviser will be in touch with them with shortly.

Don't offer them  any information about yourself, at this point, such as your bank account details or where you work.  Wait until you have spoken to an adviser.  Don't invite them into your home. The chances are, they won't even ask..

Who are Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms?

Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms are not employed by public bodies, but by private firms.

It is important to note, it is not the private firms that are authorised by the Courts to enforce their orders, but the individual Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms.  It is also important to note they act with the authority of the Court, so if you prevent them from doing their job, you could be found in contempt of court.  This is a serious offence and can be punished by either a fine, or  in the worst cases, a prison sentence.

It is therefore, important you don't obstruct them when they are doing their job.  Instead be calm and polite and treat them the way you want them to treat you. .

Who regulates Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arm?

Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms are strictly regulated  and can only act to the extent 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.

In practice this means they must have an Exceptional Attachment Order. Where they do have one they will present it to you before trying to access your home. If your premises are empty, they may use a locksmith to open it, however, it must be emphasised this rarely happens and only in the worst cases.

Making a complaint about Sheriff Officers

If you do believe an Officer has exceeded their authority, or behaved in a manner which brings themselves, their profession or the Court into disrepute, you should make a complaint.

When making a complaint about a Sheriff Officer or a Messenger at Arms, you have two options:

What powers do Sheriff Officer have?

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

Sheriff Officers enforce the orders of the Sheriff Court, whilst Messenger at Arms enforce the orders of the Court of Session, which is Scotland's national civil court.

Most debts are recovered through the Sheriff Court, so it's usually sheriff officers who are involved in recovering debts (although in reality they are the same people)

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

How should a Sheriff Officer behave?

Sheriff Officers and Messenger at Arms should act in a polite and professional manner and be honest in their dealings with you. Their professional body has produced a Code of Practice. This is not an exhaustive set of rules that they must follow, nor does it prevent them from using their discretion, however, they should try an conduct themselves in the spirit of the code.

They should never perform their duties under the influence of alcohol or drugs and should always, when on duty, have a clean and professional appearance..

A Sheriff Officer should never refuse to provide you with identification if you request it.

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 over those held by other firms involved in debt collection. They are not allowed to remove your property and cannot your arrest wages. They cannot enter your home without your permission.

What capacity are they working in?

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, 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.

Complaining about Sheriff Officers when they are debt collectors

When Sheriff Officers act as debt collectors, they must follow guidance which is laid down by the Financial Conduct Authority, and regulates debt collection practices in the UK.

Sheriff Officers must never misrepresent their authority, as this would be a clear breach of their Code of Practice.

Where you have a complaint about a Sheriff Officer firm that is 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.

Comments

  1. Rachel

    Hi,
    I have had sheriff officers at my door for unpaid electricity from a previous property.

    It’s for £800, but we are on disability benefits and can barely make ends meet as it is ( hence the debt in the first place).

    Is there much they can do we don’t have any items that they could seize as we only own essential items.

    1. Scottish Adviser Post author

      Hi Rachel

      Thanks for coming on.

      I will deal with the issue of the Sheriff Officers first.

      They have a number of options.

      First, they can execute an Earnings Arrestment, but if neither you or your partner are working, that won’t succeed.

      They can Attach items outside your home, but the most likely thing they could go after is a car.

      However, if it is subject to a Hire Purchase agreement, or is a Mobility car, they won’t be able to take it, as you don’t own it.

      If you do own it, then providing you can show you have a reasonable requirement for it (your disability?), then you can argue it’s exempt from attachment.

      You should seek advice about this (see below).

      They can try and arrest your bank account, but again this will only succeed if the amount in your account is more than £529.90.

      They cannot take anything below that figure as it is protected.

      If they take anything over that and all your income is benefits, you can challenge them, but you should seek advice (also see my page on challenging bank arrestments).

      They cannot come into your home, as they would need an Exceptional Attachment Order. These are extremely rare.

      Also you can see here, there is very little they can take.

      What I would suggest is you seek advice from your Local Authority Money Advice Service or contact your local Citizen Advice Bureau.

      Lots of Energy Firms operate hardship funds and you may qualify for a grant that can help pay this debt off.

      Alternatively, they will help you negotiate with the Sheriff Officers and the Energy Firm.

      You can find details of you local Citizen Advice Bureau here, or your Local Council here.

      1. Rachel

        Hi

        Can they touch savings accounts in my children’s names as they have over that amount?

        That is their money from birthdays and Christmas, not ours.

        1. Scottish Adviser Post author

          Hi Rachel

          No they cannot arrest your kid’s accounts, providing the accounts are in your children’s name.

          It’s okay that you or your partner are the signatories on the accounts, as long as the accounts are in your children’s name.

          Do you know if they have a court order against you, called a decree in Scotland?

          It’s just sometimes Sheriff Officers also work as debt collectors and don’t have the same powers they have when they work as Sheriff Officers.
          If they are just working as debt collectors, all they can do is ask for the money nothing else.

          If they have a decree, they could try and arrest your bank account or serve a Charge for Payment (and after the Charge the other things I mentioned above).

          They can arrest your bank account if they have a decree, even if they have not served a Charge, but the other diligences I mentioned above require a Charge to be served first.

          Diligence is the legal term used to describe the legal enforcement procedures (as mentioned above), that only Sheriff Officers can use.

  2. Maureen

    Hi

    I was at court seeking declarator for damage done to a fire surround that was proven in court.

    I was awarded £424.00 and he had twenty eight days to pay.

    He hasn’t done so, so it is now in the hands of Sheriff Officers, who intend to go to his house, but I think he has moved in the last two days or has moved some of his belongings out.

    Can you advise, as I have no clue where he has moved to or what happens next?

    1. Scottish Adviser Post author

      Hi Maureen

      Unfortunately, getting a Court Order is just the first part of recovering a debt and usually the hard part is getting the person to pay.

      I am guessing the Sheriff Officers were just going to go to his house to give him a copy of the decree or serve on him a Charge for Payment, which is a formal demand for payment.

      To enter his home an additional court order is required called an Exceptional Attachment Order, and can only be applied for after you have tried to arrest his bank account or arrest his wages.

      Even if you get an Exceptional Attachment Order, so much is protected in his home (see here), so it is not always a very effective way to recover a debt.

      You can try attaching his car if he owns one, build he can possibly avoid this if he has got it on finance, as it will belong to the finance firm.

      If you know where he works or banks, this may be useful to the Sheriff Officers, but other than that, there is not alot more you can do.

      Speak with the Sheriff Officers and ask their advice, as they do this every day for a living, but remember there can be costs in trying to recover a debt, as the Sheriff Officers have fees and if you are not successful, you could be throwing good money after bad.

  3. Paul

    Hi

    I’ve had sheriff Officers turn up at an address I moved out of a year ago.

    A neighbour sent me a text and told me. I don’t know what to do?

    1. Scottish Adviser Post author

      Hi Paul

      I am sorry.

      I always try and put myself in other people’s shoes and my first instinct would be to worry and not want to go near them.

      However, here is the problem with that from my experience. If this is for Council Tax, it is not going to go away, as local authorities can try and recover the debt for up to 20 years.

      Also, you have said you moved out? Do the Local Authority know that? If it was for Council Tax and they didn’t know, your bill may be higher than it should be. They will usually adjust the bill to reflect you moved out if you can provide them with proof that you moved out.

      It may be the best place to start is the Local Authority. Ask if they are aware you moved out and if not what Sheriff Officers they use? Also how much do you owe?

      If it’s not the Local Authority for Council Tax are you aware of any other debts? There are usually only a couple of different Sheriff Officer firms in your area. The one the Council use are probably the main one. If it is not them, maybe your neighbour caught their name?

      Ultimately, I think, my view is you are best getting to the bottom of this and dealing with it. It won’t go away, and may be a mistak. If the Local Authority weren’t aware you moved out, it may be an opportunity to clarify somethings and reduce your liability for Council Tax.

      Hope this helps and please fee free to come back on.

  4. David

    Hi.

    I have had a Sheriff Officer at my door who handed me a letter that says they can remove me from my own home, which I own.

    I was made bankrupt in 2010.

    Can they throw me out?

    1. Scottish Adviser Post author

      Hi David.

      I am sorry to hear this, especially at this time of year.

      Sheriff Officers are used to evict people from their homes when courts grant orders. This is normally for rent and mortgage arrears, but can also happen when someone has been made bankrupt.

      This is because when you are sequestrated in Scotland (made bankrupt), your home, where you own it vests with your Trustee in Bankruptcy.

      They have a duty to realise any equity in your home for the benefit of your creditors. In the worst case scenario, this can mean selling your home.

      The Trustee can do this even after you have had a discharge, as his interest in your home can continue beyond this point.

      I cannot advise you on your particular circumstances, however, it sounds like your Trustee may have obtained an order of ejection to remove you from your home and he wants to sell it.

      I would suggest you treat this seriously and get advice as quickly as possible from a law centre, if there is one close to you, or from a local solicitor.

      Alternatively call the Shelter Housing Helpline on 0808 800 4444

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