Sheriff officers do the same job as bailiffs in England and Wales but have far fewer powers than bailiffs.
Coronavirus - urgent work only
Sheriff officers and Messengers-at-Arms are only undertaking urgent tasks from the courts. The types of court action that is urgent includes family actions to protect children or applications for people who need protection because of incapacity. A list of urgent civil action is available on the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service website .
Sheriff officers and Messengers-at-Arms are instructed to maintain social distancing in any contact with the public.
Powers of sheriff officers
Sheriff officers are officers of the court in Scotland. They are employed by private firms of sheriff officers or they are self-employed. They accept instructions from:
- local authorities
- government departments.
Sheriff officers enforce court orders. The court orders that they serve on you can be to:
- evict you
- make you pay a debt
- make a change to your property that there was a dispute about
- remove or detain a member of the family, for example, a child that has been abused
- make sure you get important legal papers.
The court officers for the Court of Session (the higher civil court) are called Messengers-at-Arms. They have powers to enforce orders from the Court of Session. A Messenger-at-Arms is always also a sheriff officer.
Sheriff officers are not the same as the police
Sheriff officers only have power to enforce an existing court order or deliver legal papers. This power can include a special court order called a warrant that allows them to detain or remove someone from your home.
Can a sheriff officer enter your home
A sheriff officer can only come into your home if they have 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.
It may not be clear to you 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 to enter your home. 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.
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.
Entering the client's home if no one is in
Sheriff officers can force entry, when you are out, but only if they are:
- evicting you
- making sure work has been carried out
- recovering property.
When sheriff officers are seizing possessions to sell them because you owe money to someone (this is called an exceptional attachment) they can't do this if no-one in the house:
- is at least 16 years of age and understands what is happening
- speaks or understands English
- is able to understand the situation because of physical or mental disability.
If you have an exceptional attachment order against you and don't think it has been dealt with properly by the sheriff officers, you should get advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau to check what your options are - where to get advice.
How much warning if sheriff officers are coming to your home
A sheriff officer usually has to write to you to tell you when they are coming. For some court orders there are strict rules about what warning you should get:
- 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
- for an exceptional attachment for debt a sheriff officer can only call to your home between 8am and 8pm and not on a Sunday or a public holiday
- if there is a warrant to check if someone is in danger, or, for example, a child has to be removed to a place of safety for their own protection, then they could enter the home during the night without warning you if they have the correct permission from a court. 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 for debt
When the sheriff officers are enforcing a court order for debt you can still contact the person or company you owe the money to by telephone to make a payment towards your debt.
You might be able to prevent any further action by negotiating with the person you owe money to, or their agent, to make payment directly to the sheriff officers.
More about action a creditor can take for debt
Checking sheriff officers identity
A sheriff officer has to show you their ID if you ask to see it.
They have an identity booklet with a photograph of themselves and the crest of the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service.
It is countersigned by the sheriff clerk for the area where they work. Currently the booklet is red in colour.
If legal papers are being delivered to you a sheriff officer may have a witness with them. The witness is not a sheriff officer so will not have the same identification.
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 they work for and phone the firm to confirm identity.
Sheriff officers powers to remove people from the property
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 help about eviction by sheriff officers on the Shelter Scotland website.
Can a sheriff officer remove a child from the home
A sheriff officer can be used by the court to move a child to a place of safety. This can happen in the middle of the night or very early in the morning.
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 remove a violent partner from the home. This is likely to be done with the police.
More about domestic violence.
Complaints about sheriff officers
You should write to the firm that employs a sheriff officer if you think that they have:
- behaved in an unreasonable or disreputable way in carrying out their duties
- exceeded their powers.
If you are not happy with the reply from the firm or you don’t want to complain to the officer or their employers you may make a written complaint to the Sheriff Principal. They 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
28 Rutland Square