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Debt in Scotland: What is a sheriff officer?

Posted 15 June 2016

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What can sheriff officers do and what should you do if they get in touch?

If you’re struggling to cope with problem debts in Scotland, the thought of a visit from a sheriff officer is a scary thought. It can be especially worrying if you’re not completely sure what a sheriff officer is, as you might not be sure what they can do.

Don’t worry – sheriff officers will only come to your home after your lenders have exhausted every other possibility. If you’ve been responding to your lenders, they probably won’t send a sheriff officer round. But if you’ve been ignoring their calls and letters, it’s possible they could get in touch. Let’s take a look at what could happen.

What do sheriff officers do?

A sheriff officer is similar to a bailiff in England and Wales. They’re now officially known as High Court Enforcement Officers (HCEO) but you might still hear them referred to as sheriff officers. They have legal powers as the courts appoint them to collect debts from you. They can be self-employed or work for a sheriff officers company and private individuals, companies, solicitors, local authorities or Government departments can instruct them.

As we’ve already mentioned, a HCEO/sheriff officer will be a last resort after a lender has tried all other methods of recovering the debt from you. You’ll need to have ignored your lenders attempts to contact you for quite a while before they get a court to appoint a sheriff officer.

In extreme circumstances if you’re in rent arrears, they can evict you from your property. However, keep in mind that there will have to be an existing court order for this – it won’t just happen without you knowing about it, or if you’ve only missed a couple of payments.

Sheriff officers can only come into your home if there’s an existing court order to say they can do this. If they come over and you’re not sure if they’re genuine, ask to see their identification booklet. This is a red document and will include their name, a photo of them and the Scottish Court Service crest.

The sheriff officer should also have another document that says they can come into your property – this will say ‘grants warrant for all lawful execution’.

What powers do they have?

In very rare circumstances, HCEOs/sheriff officers will come into your home and take your possessions to pay off your debts. But like we’ve already said, lenders will only do this if they’ve already tried to reclaim the money in other ways.

Don’t think that sheriff officers will turn up and automatically start breaking your door down to get into your home. First off, they’ll ask you to let them in and if you refuse, they can use necessary reasonable force to get in. This means they can break a lock or a window or force a door to get into your property.

Sheriff officers can’t just take any of your possessions though. If something is essential to your everyday life, the sheriff officer can’t take it to pay off your debts. This can include bedding and clothing, or anything else you need to maintain a basic standard of living. They also can’t take anything you need to do your job – for example, if you’re a self-employed electrician, they can’t take away your tools.

A sheriff officer can only come into your home to take your possessions if there is an adult at home. This means someone at least 16 years of age – so they couldn’t come round if only your children were in. They also can’t go into your home if the only adult present doesn’t speak English or can’t understand what’s happening because of a physical or mental disability.

In rare circumstances, sheriff officers can force entry to your home when no one is in. However, they can only do this to enforce an eviction or recover property – they won’t ever do this to take your belongings to sell them.

If you’re unhappy with the way in which a HCEO/sheriff officer has behaved you can find the information you need to make a formal complaint here

What should you do?

If a HCEO/sheriff officer comes to your home to take your possessions, the best thing you can do is to let them in so they can do this. We know it can be hard to watch your belongings taken away but if you refuse to let them in, they could still force entry.

If they have to break a window or a lock to get into your home, there’s a chance that your lender could pass the repair costs back to you. And what’s more, you could even get a charge of ‘breaching the peace’ if you stop a sheriff officer entering your home when they’re allowed to.

Remember, it doesn’t need to get to the stage where a sheriff officer comes over to your home. If you get a notice to tell you about a court order for a sheriff officer’s visit, you should get in touch with your lenders. If you can’t afford to make your debt repayments, you could still come to some agreement with them, where you only pay what you can afford, or they freeze interest and charges for a time.

Lenders won’t instruct sheriff officers to visit you if you’re responding to their calls or letters – they’ll only do this if you stop responding to them. That’s why it’s always best to get in touch with them to let them know the details of your situation.

If you’re worried about sheriff officers coming over to your home, you can get in touch with one of our expert advisors using any of the options on the left. They can help you talk through your problems and, if a debt solution can help, they will recommend the best one for your needs.

There is also lots of help available from the Money Advice Service

by Emily Bancroft

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