This information applies to Scotland only
Can sheriff officers come into my house and take my possessions to pay off my debt?
In theory, yes. In practice, this is very rare. Before sending in sheriff officers, creditors must have tried other ways of collecting your money. They also need a court order to enter your home and seize your possessions, so it is very unlikely that this would happen.
But it is very important to make sure that things do not get to this stage. If your debts are getting out of hand, get help now - where to get advice.
Powers of sheriff officers
Sheriff officers are officers of the court who are employed by firms of sheriff officers or they are self-employed. They accept instructions from:
- local authorities
- government departments.
They enforce court orders. The court orders that they serve on you can be for:
- debt enforcement
- property disputes
- family matters such as adoption or divorce.
They can also enforce orders to remove or detain members of your family, for example, an abused child or a violent partner.
They can also be used to deliver a witness citation to you or other important legal papers when evidence that you received them is required.
The court officers for the Court of Session (the higher civil court) are called Messengers-at-Arms and have similar powers to enforce orders from the Court of Session. A Messenger-at-Arms is always also a sheriff officer.
Are sheriff officers the same as the police
Sheriff officers are not the same as the police. They only have power to enforce an existing court order or deliver legal papers. This power often does include a civil warrant that allows them to detain or remove someone from premises.
Can a sheriff officer enter your home
A sheriff officer can only come into your home if there is the correct authority from the court to do so. You can ask the sheriff officer to show you the document that states they can come into your home. In some cases it may not be clear from the court document that permission to enter your home is included. The document usually has a phrase like grants warrant for all lawful execution. This group of words does provide the authority. If you are in any doubt you should phone the firm of sheriff officers.
You should also ask to check their identification.
Can a sheriff officer force entry
If you refuse to let a sheriff officer, who has the correct authority, to enter your home they can use what they call necessary reasonable force to get in. For example, as long as they have the correct warrant they can force a door or break a lock or a window. You could be charged with breach of the peace for obstructing an officer of the court who has the correct authority to enter your home.
Sheriff officers can only force entry when you are out if they are enforcing an eviction.
If a broken lock or window is replaced, who pays for this
If you have to replace a broken lock or window, the person pursuing the court order, for example, the landlord or the creditor, has to pay for its replacement. This is paid as part of the sheriff officer's fees and charges. In some debt enforcement actions these costs may be passed back to you.
Can a sheriff officer enter the client's home if no one is there
Sheriff officers can force entry, when you are out, but only if they are either:
- enforcing an eviction
- ensuring certain work has been carried out; or
- recovering property.
For all enforcements that involve the sheriff officers seizing possessions to sell them (this is called exceptional attachment) there has to be someone in the house of at least 16 years of age who understands what is going on. The sheriff officers cannot go ahead if the person who is in the property when they arrive:
- does not speak or understand English; or
- does not seem able to understand the situation because of physical or mental disability.
If you have an exceptional attachment order against you, you must get advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau to check what your options are - where to get advice.
Can a sheriff officer enter my home at any time including during the night
For evictions and debt enforcement a sheriff officer usually has to write to you to tell you when they are coming.
If you are being evicted you should receive a notice from the sheriff officers telling you that you have to leave by 14 days after the court granted the decree. Usually you should also get at least 48 hours notice of the date you have to leave by.
A sheriff officer can only carry out an exceptional attachment for debt between the hours of 8.00am and 8.00pm and not on a Sunday or public holiday.
If the sheriff officer has a warrant to enter the property to check if someone is in danger, or, for example, is a child and has to be removed for their own protection, then they could enter the home during the night with the correct permission. It is likely that the police would also be involved in this type of visit to protect and remove someone.
Communicating directly with the sheriff officers to stop the action against you
When the sheriff officers are enforcing a court order for a debt you can still contact the person or company you owe the money to by telephone to make a payment towards your debt. You may be able to prevent any further action by negotiating with your creditor or their agent to make payment to the sheriff officers.
Checking the identity of sheriff officers
Every sheriff officer has an identity booklet with a photograph of themselves and the crest of the Scottish court service. It is countersigned by the sheriff clerk for the geographical area in which they work. Currently the booklet is red in colour.
A sheriff officer may be accompanied by a witness if legal papers are being delivered to you. The witness is not a sheriff officer so will not have the same identification. A sheriff officer has to show you their ID if you ask to see it.
If you are anxious about the identity of anyone claiming to be a sheriff officer you can ask for the name of the firm that she or he works for and phone the firm to confirm identity.
If you are being evicted can a sheriff officer physically remove you from the property
If you are being evicted you can be physically removed from the property. Although it may be very upsetting you might be well-advised to leave the property without a fuss or you could be charged with breach of the peace if you are angry and obstructive.
Police can be asked to attend an eviction but they cannot help the sheriff officers with the eviction. If you break the law, for example by causing a breach of the peace you can be arrested by the police.
There is more about eviction on the Shelter website at scotland.shelter.org.uk.
Does the sheriff officer need to warn you before taking action
The sheriff officer must inform you officially of the date of an eviction. You should get at least two weeks notice.
When enforcing debts the sheriff officer will only give you advance notice of what they are doing if they are using a power called exceptional attachment.
For more about attachment and other forms of authority for enforcing payment of a debt, see Action the creditor can take.
Can a sheriff officer enforce a court order in the middle of the night
A sheriff officer cannot enforce a debt or an eviction in the middle of the night unless they have special permission from a court order.
In some cases a sheriff officer might have to enforce a court order to secure someone’s safety in the middle of the night.
Can a sheriff officer remove a child from the care of one person to another person
A sheriff officer can be used by the court to move a child to a place of safety.
For more about children in need, see Children who need local authority services.
Can a sheriff officer remove a violent partner from the home
A sheriff officer can enforce a court order to remove a violent partner from the home.
Complaints about sheriff officers
If you think that a sheriff officer has behaved in an unreasonable or disreputable way in carrying out her/his duties, or exceeded her/his powers, you should write first to the officer or the firm that employs him or her asking for an explanation.
If you are not happy with the reply from the firm or don’t wish to complain to the officer or her/his employers you may make a written complaint to the Sheriff Principal who can arrange for an investigation to be carried out. The Sheriff Principal can be contacted through the sheriff clerk at the local sheriff court.
You can also complain to the Society of Messengers-at-Arms and Sheriff Officers. It provides a service for the whole of Scotland. It has its own disciplinary procedures but often handles complaints from the Sheriff Principal's office. Its address is:
Society of Messengers-at-Arms and Sheriff Officers
8-12 Torphichen Street
Tel: 0131 228 2866