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:
- The first option is to complain to their professional body, which is the Society of Messenger at Arms and Sheriff Officers.
- Alternatively, you can also make a complaint 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 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:
- Charge for Payments
- Earning Arrestments
- Actions of Arrestment and Furthcoming
- Attachments (for a list of items Sheriff Officers cannot take, see here)
- Exceptional Attachment Order
- Money Attachments
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.