Dealing with bailiffs at your doorstep is one of the most anxiety-provoking, overwhelming aspects of a debt problem. In Scotland, bailiffs are called sheriff officers. Typically, you will encounter a sheriff officer if you have unsecured debts like council tax arrears, tax payments or water and energy bill arrears which you are struggling to repay. What’s worse is, you may find yourself too busy trying to get by, to learn about their powers or what to do should you ever find yourself receiving that knock on the door. Sheriff officers enforce court orders relating to debt recovery on behalf of government agencies, private companies or individual creditors.
With the right documentation, a sheriff officer can enter your home, using reasonable force if blocked from doing so and remove items that belong to you, both inside or outside of your home. These items are taken and resold with the proceeds going towards repaying your outstanding debt balance.
While they are officers of the court they are not the police, and therefore their powers are limited in that they can only enforce an existing court order. Creditors are entitled to instruct sheriff officers to take action only when they have made formal attempts to collect your debt.
If you have received a ‘charge for payment’ (a formal demand for payment which is commonly sent after at least two or three previous letters warning of court action) this is your guide on sheriff officers: what they can and can’t do; your rights, and how to handle the situation without creating new problems.
Powers of a sheriff officer
The ultimate concern of anyone with unsecured debts they can’t afford is that a sheriff officer will force their way into their home and seize their possessions indiscriminately. Though forced entry is allowed in certain cases, it is quite rare and depends on express authority from the courts.
So when can they enter your home?
The officer requires an ‘Exceptional Attachment Order’ before they can force entry. Prior to gaining an Exceptional Attachment Order, a creditor must show that they have made reasonable attempts to repay the debt such as serving you with a Charge for Payment, allowing you 14 days to repay your debt. Additionally, for the order to be valid, you must have received a Debt Advice and Information Package from your creditor along with the charge for payment. As such, whoever your creditor may be, you should always be sure to note whether or not you have received an information pack with any documentation they have sent.
A sheriff officer should also first try a less intrusive way of recovering your debt such as arresting your bank account, executing an Earning Arrestment or enforcing an Attachment Order. However, if a creditor can prove that they didn’t employ these methods because it wouldn’t have resulted in the debt being repaid they can be excused from not using them and apply for an Exceptional Assessment Order.
Before granting an Exceptional Assessment Order a sheriff officer will consider the nature of your debt, your living, working and financial circumstances and whether you have applied for and been rejected from debt help in the past along with a number of other factors. When an Exceptional Assessment order is granted however, they can force entry to, and remove items from your home.
What if I refuse entry?
If you or someone over the age of 16 with a full understanding of the situation does refuse entry to an authorized sheriff officer, they can force a door open or break a lock/window to gain entry. It’s quite ambiguous who would pay for these damages but the general rule is that the cost is covered as part of the officer’s fee. However, it is not uncommon for the cost to be forwarded onto you. Sheriff officers cannot enter or seize possessions if, when they arrive:
- You or someone over the age of 16 is not present.
- If you’re not present, but someone aged 16 or older is they can’t force entry if that person doesn’t speak or understand English; or is unable to understand the situation because of physical or mental disability.
What can they take?
If the sheriff officer has an Exceptional Attachment Order, they are entitled to seize any ‘non-essential’ possessions from inside your home. They can also take any goods from outside your home unless they are exempt – as an example, they can force entry into a locked garage to recover a car you have missed hire purchase payments on. It will hopefully be reassuring to know, however, that most of the goods inside your home are likely to be exempt, as it is recognised by the courts that they are essential and you will, therefore, need them.
When can they visit?
Sheriff officers are allowed to enforce the order between working the hours of 8 am and 8 pm. They cannot come to your home at all on a Sunday or a Bank Holiday. Unfortunately, you will not normally be notified as to when they will be coming unless they are in possession of an Exceptional Attachment Order.
What to Do When Facing a Sheriff Officer
Again, a sheriff officer can only come into your home with the correct authority from the court to do so – the Exceptional Attachment Order. Without exception, you should always immediately ask the sheriff officer to show you their identification and the document that states that they have the authority to come inside. They are obliged to show you both.
Every sheriff officer has a red booklet with an identification photograph and the crest of the Scottish court service. It is countersigned by the sheriff clerk for the relevant area. In some cases, it may not be clear from the court document that permission to enter your home is included. As to the Attachment Order, the document usually has a phrase like “grants warrant for all lawful execution.” This is the group of words you are looking for, as they do provide appropriate authority. If you are in any doubt you should ask for the officer’s employer and call them.
Though an upsetting ordeal, if the identification and documentation check out, you would be well advised not to obstruct enforcement. You may face a ‘breach of the peace’ charge if you try to obstruct an officer of the court from carrying out a legitimate court order. It goes without saying that you should not resort to violence. Crucially, at any stage, you can arrange to pay the officer part or all of the debt. If this is affordable, it is probably preferable to having essential goods repossessed, and you should definitely offer to pay whatever you can.
Has an Officer Exceeded Authority?
If you think that a sheriff officer has behaved in an unreasonable way or taken action beyond their entitled powers, you should immediately call or contact their employer asking for an explanation. You should then make a formal complaint with the Sheriff Principal if you feel that their behaviour has been unreasonable. The Sheriff Principal can arrange for an investigation to be carried out.
How to avoid this situation
Dealing with bailiffs and sheriff officers is one of the most distressing aspects of a debt problem, and we may be able to help you avoid to avoid this situation altogether. One of the key advantages of our specialist service, the Protected Trust Deed is that once it is signed and has become protected, as long as you stick to the agreed terms, your creditors can no longer legally contact you or further pursue your debt. All correspondence must be directed to your insolvency practitioner instead– no sheriff officers, no contact, no stress.
For a clean break from your debt problem, get in touch today on 0141 221 0999 or find out if you qualify in just 60 seconds. Our team of friendly, FCA approved, expert advisors, are waiting for your call.