Are bailiffs legal in Scotland?

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Overview:

This guide will explore the role of sheriff officers in more detail, including what powers sheriff officers have and what can happen if you ignore a sheriff officer.

The word ‘bailiff’ is often used as a general term for a legal officer who visits people’s homes to collect unpaid debts. However, bailiffs only operate in certain parts of the country and go by other names depending on where you live.

Scotland, for example, has ‘sheriff officers’ instead of bailiffs, who are officers of the court with similar powers to enforce a debt. But how do sheriff officers compare to bailiffs?

What is a sheriff officer?

A sheriff officer is an officer of the court with the authority to enforce court orders and carry out various other duties related to the debt enforcement process, such as serve court documents.

They play an integral role in the country’s legal system and have the power to enforce several types of court orders, including property evictions, wage arrestments, and asset seizures.

Despite working on behalf of the court, they tend to act more as intermediaries between the court and the debtor and are typically employed by private firms or self-employed.

What powers do sheriff officers have?

Like bailiffs, sheriff officers must stick to certain rules when enforcing a debt and are limited in that they can only enforce orders exactly as handed down by the court. We’ve outlined the main powers of a sheriff officer below:

Evict you from your home

If your landlord has taken action to have you evicted from your home, it will likely be a sheriff officer who visits you to carry out the eviction.

They will serve you with a ‘charge for removing from heritable property’, which is a notice informing you that the eviction will take place within two weeks, and get back in touch to inform you of the eviction date 48 hours beforehand.

Enter your home

If the court has given a sheriff officer permission to enter your home, they may arrive at your door with a document giving them the power to do so – the document must include the line ‘grants warrant for all lawful execution’ for them to legally enter your home.

They are also authorised to use necessary reasonable force to force entry in certain situations, which means they can break a lock, push open a door, or enter through a window if required.

Refusing to let a sheriff officer into your home when they have a court order permitting them to do so could lead to you being charged with breach of the peace.

Seize your possessions

If you have priority debt, such as council tax debt, the court may instruct a sheriff officer to seize and sell your possessions to recover the money owed.

They will be given an ‘exceptional attachment order’, which gives them the power to enter your home and remove belongings equal to the value of the debt, and inform you at least four days before they visit you.

However, sheriff officers can only take non-essential items that you don’t need to maintain a certain standard of living and can’t take things like clothing, white goods, and beds. They can also only visit between the hours of 8am and 8pm Monday to Friday without a court order stating otherwise.

Remove a person from your home

In certain situations, a sheriff officer can physically remove a person from their home.

For example, they have the power to remove you from your home if you’re being evicted and are refusing to cooperate, remove a child to a place of safety if they are in danger, or remove a violent partner if they are posing a danger to you (this will likely be done with the police).

What rights do I have when a sheriff officer visits me?

When a sheriff officer visits you at home, it’s important you know your rights so you can recognise when you are being treated unfairly. We’ve summarised your rights when dealing with sheriff officers below:

Repaying the debt

Even if a sheriff officer has already visited you, you have the right to arrange full or partial payment of the debt to the sheriff officer if you’re in the financial position to do so.

This can stop enforcement action in its tracks and allow you to move on from the debt.

Asking for proof of identification

When a sheriff officer visits you, you have the right to ask for proof of identification before permitting them to enter your home.

They are obliged to show you their ID on request and – like all court officers – should carry a red booklet that contains the crest of the court service, a photo of themselves, and the signature of the local sheriff clerk.

Complaining about a sheriff officer

If you believe a sheriff officer has treated you unfairly, you have the right to make a formal complaint.

This can be done by writing to the sheriff principal (the equivalent of a district judge) of your local sheriff court stating the reason for the complaint and attaching any relevant evidence.

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Are bailiffs legal in Scotland?

Despite only operating in other parts of the UK, you may be wondering if a bailiff can legally enforce a debt in Scotland.

However, while sheriff officers have the power to enforce a debt in Scotland that was issued elsewhere in the UK, bailiffs have no power of enforcement in Scotland.

If a creditor from elsewhere in the UK wants to enforce a debt in Scotland, they must follow a certain process to allow a sheriff officer to collect the money owed on their behalf.

What items can a sheriff officer seize from my home?

When a sheriff officer visits you, they can only take belongings that are deemed non-essential and will usually start looking for high-value items first, such as cars, jewellery, and electronics.

Some of the things a sheriff officer can’t take include:

  • Vehicles up to a value of £3,000 that you require for work or childcare purposes
  • Tools up to a value of £1,000 that you require for work
  • Educational items up to a value of £1,000
  • Essential household goods e.g. furniture, bedding, chairs
  • Clothing or children’s toys

What happens when you ignore sheriff officers?

Generally, it’s not recommended to ignore a sheriff officer when they first get in contact with you. They will not simply give up and move on and, in most cases, will seek further action to get you to settle the debt.

Unlike debt collectors – who can only contact you to try to encourage toy to repay a debt – sheriff officers have greater legal powers and can take further action against you if you don’t cooperate.

For example, they may return at a later date with a warrant from the court to enter your home and seize your belongings. This could mean you lose your car and you could end up owing more than you did in the first place due to extra fees.

Even if you can’t afford to repay the debt in full, you may be able to arrange a repayment schedule with the sheriff officer where you pay the debt in monthly instalments.

How should I deal with sheriff officers?

If you’re worried about being visited by a sheriff officer, the most important thing to remember is not to panic and professional debt advice is available.

Depending on the reason for their visit, a sheriff officer must give you sufficient notice of their arrival (typically four days) and give you a chance to arrange payment of the debt.

Once you know a sheriff officer is going to visit you, you must respond as soon as possible, explaining the situation and how you plan to deal with it. By showing that you’re willing to deal with your debt promptly and professionally, they are more likely to reach an agreement with you.

Alternatively, you can contact the individual or company you owe money to directly and organise a repayment plan that all parties can agree on. This can help you avoid being visited by a sheriff officer altogether.

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How can I avoid being visited by a sheriff officer?

Like any form of enforcement action, the key to avoiding it altogether is to repay the debt in full or, at the very least, agree to repay what you in regular instalments. By showing that you’re committed to settling the debt, your creditor is less likely to take you to court and instruct sheriff officers to chase you for the debt.

Alternatively, entering into a debt solution, such as an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA) or Debt Arrangement Scheme (DAS), can help you better manage your debt by consolidating it into smaller monthly payments that you can easily afford.

Remember, never hesitate to reach out for expert help and advice if you need it. Whether you’ve already been visited by sheriff officers or are worried about missing a repayment, they can discuss your options for getting out of debt and advise you on your next steps.

Worried about Sheriff Officers?

Conclusion

Despite having similar legal powers to enforce a debt, bailiffs and sheriff officers are not the same and operate in different parts of the UK.

In Scotland, only sheriff officers can enforce a debt regardless of where the debt was issued and bailiffs have no legal power north of the border. This means that, if you’re being chased for an unpaid debt in Scotland, there is a chance you could be visited by a sheriff officer.

The more you know about sheriff officers and their powers, the more prepared you will be for enforcement action when it happens.

Key Takeaways

A sheriff officer is the equivalent of a bailiff in Scotland and is hired to collect debts (e.g. council tax arrears) on behalf of the court
A sheriff officer can evict you from your home, seize your possessions, and remove a person from your home
When a sheriff officer visits you, you have the right to request proof of identification
Sheriff officers enforce court orders in Scotland for debts issued elsewhere but bailiffs have no legal power in Scotland
Sheriff officers can only seize non-essential items when they visit your home to recover payment of a debt
Maxine McCreadie

Maxine McCreadie

Author/Debt Expert

Maxine McCreadie, prominent personal finance writer featured in Vogue and Yahoo News, delivers practical guidance, simplifying money management and championing financial literacy.

How we reviewed this article:

HISTORY

Our debt experts continually monitor the personal finance and debt industry, and we update our articles when new information becomes available.

Current Version

May 28 2024

Written by
Maxine McCreadie

Edited by
Ben McCormack

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