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What are Sheriff Officers, and what can (and can’t) they do?
If you live in Scotland and are in debt, or have a court order, you might get a letter telling you that a Sheriff Officer is going to visit you at your property. This is very similar to the experience of getting a letter from a Bailiff in England and Wales. You may have seen depictions of enforcement officers such as this on TV, but that doesn’t mean you know everything about Sheriff Officers – remember, you still have rights when they come to visit!
What is a Sheriff Officer?
A Sheriff Officer can be employed by a firm, or may be self-employed. Individuals, companies, solicitors, local authorities, and government departments can hire them to enforce court orders. This may be for:
- Debt Enforcement
- Family matters, such as adoption or divorce
- Property disputes
This could mean that they are at your door for a number of reasons from delivering legal papers, to detaining members of your family, such as violent partner.
- They can enter your home, with the correct paperwork.
- They can also force entry if you refuse them entry when they have the correct paperwork. However, they cannot force entry when you are out, unless they are enforcing an eviction, ensuring certain work has been carried out, or are recovering property, not including seizing property to sell (‘exceptional attachment’)
- They cannot enforce ‘exceptional attachment’, unless the person at home fully understands what is going on. This means they can speak and understand English, are over the age of 16, and are not physically or mentally disabled in a way that impairs their understanding.
- Enforcing ‘exceptional attachment’ can only occur from 8am to 8pm Monday – Saturday, and not on public holidays.
- During the process of enforcing an ‘exceptional attachment’, they are allowed to open closed and locked areas in your home.
- They must give you 4 days advance notice if they are using their power of ‘exceptional attachment’.
- They can enter a property at night with the correct warrant if someone is in danger, for example, to protect a child.
- They can physically remove you from the property, but only if you are being evicted.
- Most importantly, Sheriff Officers can only enforce existing orders. They are not the police, so cannot make arrests or act without the correct paperwork. In some cases, however, they may be accompanied by the police. The police may not be able to necessarily help the Sheriff Officer, but can arrest you if you break the law during proceedings, such as breaching the peace.
Sheriff Officers and Debt Collection
Sheriff Officers can be used to enforce ‘diligence’, which is essentially creditors using them to recover debts.
Step One: ‘Charge to Pay’ or ‘Charge for Payment’ issued. This is a notice telling you to fully pay the debt by a certain debt, often in 14 days. Many people bury their head in the sand at this point, but this is not a good idea as the Sheriff Officer gains more powers the longer you wait. If possible, pay off your debt now, or call your creditor to negotiate payment.
Step Two: There are a wide range of actions that can be taken against you if you can’t pay. This could include arresting your earnings, or your bank account, and petitioning for bankruptcy. For further advice call us on 0141 326 0407.
Step Three: Sheriff Officers may gain an ‘interim attachment of goods’, an ‘attachment of goods’, or an ‘exceptional attachment of goods’. This means that they can take your property to pay off your debts, but they are only entitled to access into your home under an ‘exceptional attachment of goods’. They must give 4 days’ notice.
What should you do?
- Ask who they are here on behalf of. There are many reasons for a Sheriff Officer to visit, so make sure you aren’t misunderstanding the situation by clarifying who they are working for.
- Ask to check their identification. It should be red booklet, with a photograph of themselves, the crest of the Scottish court service, and countersigned by the sheriff clerk for the locality that they operate in. Occasionally, a witness will accompany them. The witness does not have the same identification.
- Ask to check their paperwork. In particular, look for the phrase ‘grants warrant for all lawful execution’ as this allows Sheriff Officers to enter your home. If they have an ‘interim attachment’ or ‘attachment’ they can only take possession of items outside your home to pay your debts, including inside your garage. Some items, however, are exempt, such as:
- One vehicle up to £3,000, if you can prove that you need them
- mobile homes that are your principal residence
- tools for your trade up to £1,000
- housing goods that are reasonably necessary, such as clothes, toys, and cookers
- tools reasonably necessary for your garden
If any of these goods are removed, you have 14 days to ask to have them returned under ‘Section 11 of the Debt Arrangement and Attachment (Scotland) Act’.
- Don’t let them in, unless they have the correct warrant. It is possible that a Sheriff Officer with peaceful entry, may begin to note down your possessions in preparation for their sale. Although, unless they have the correct warrant, and have given you sufficient warning of ‘exceptional attachment’, they cannot collect any goods during this visit.
If you want to stop any further action on a debt:
- Try making a significant payment towards your debt. This works best at the earlier stages of Sheriff Officer Involvement, when ‘Charge for Payment’ has been issued. You can still contact the creditor to make a payment, or negotiate a plan. Just make sure you are dealing with the right creditor, you don’t want to prioritise the wrong debt!
- If this doesn’t work, the Sheriff Officer may give you notice that they will return and use their power of ‘exceptional attachment’. This means they can seize your belongings to be sold. If you can’t make a deal with your creditor, then you could stop a Sheriff Officer by entering in a formal debt solution, such as a Trust Deed, or DAS.
What if a Sheriff Officer has not followed these rules?
If you believe that the Sheriff Officer that visited has not adhered to these rules, then you can complain. First, you should write to the officer, or his firm, asking for an explanation. If this explanation is not acceptable then you should write to the Sheriff Principle, who investigates complaints. They can be contacted by asking the sheriff clerk at your local sheriff court.
You can also contact the Society of Messengers-at-Arms and Sheriff Officers by calling 0131 292 0321, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.