What are sheriff officers?
In Scotland, enforcement agents are known as sheriff officers. Sheriff officers are legally authorised individuals who work on behalf of the courts to recover an outstanding debt, repossess possessions, or even carry out the eviction of a tenant. They also have the power to remove people from a property (eg to move a child to a safe place or to remove a violent partner from a shared home).
Sheriff officers can be instructed by private individuals, companies, lawyers, local authorities, and government departments.
Court officers acting for the Court of Session (also known as ‘Messengers-at-Arms’) have similar powers to enforce orders granted by the Court of Session. Messengers-at-Arms are also sheriff officers.
When can sheriff officers visit?
Generally, for evictions and debt enforcement actions, sheriff officers should give you notice that they are coming.
Where you are being evicted, you should receive a notice telling you that you have to leave the property within 14 days. If you do not comply, you should generally be given at least 48 hours’ notice of the date that a sheriff officer will evict you on.
If a sheriff officer is coming to sell your possessions, you will generally be given 4 days’ notice.
Sheriff officers can usually only enter your property between 8am and 8pm. They cannot come on a Sunday or on a public holiday. If it’s urgent that they come sooner (eg because somebody is in danger), the court can allow this.
When can sheriff officers enter a property?
Sheriff officers may only enter your home or business if they have the correct authority from the courts to do so. You can ask the sheriff officers to provide evidence of this by showing you the document stating they can enter a property.
If you refuse entry to a sheriff officer (who has the necessary authority), they may use ‘necessary reasonable force’ to enter. This means that they can force open a door or break a lock or a window to gain access to your property.
Where you refuse entry to a sheriff officer, you may also be charged with breach of the peace.
What if no one is present at the property?
If no one is present at your property (eg if you are not home), sheriff officers can force entry if they are:
enforcing an eviction
ensuring certain work has been carried out, or
If sheriff officers are enforcing an action that involves seizing belongings to sell them on, they can only take belongings if someone is in the property (otherwise they can enter but they cannot take anything). They can’t take anything or enter the property if there is somebody home and this person (being the only person home):
is not over the age of 16
does not speak or understand English, or
does not understand what is happening because of a physical or mental disability.
What to do before a sheriff officer visits
If you haven’t fully paid a debt, you might be sent a letter from the sheriff officers saying they will visit your home or work to collect the payment. They will do this if they will be seizing non-essential possessions (eg paintings) for them to be sold under an ‘exceptional attachment order’.
If the sheriff officers are enforcing a court order for debt, you may still contact the person to whom the debt is owed and make a payment towards the debt. You may be able to prevent further action by the sheriff officers by negotiating with your creditors or by paying the sheriff officers.
Check the identity of the sheriff officers
Sheriff officers carry with them an identity book. This book should contain a photograph of the officer in question and the crest of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service. Further, it must be signed by the sheriff clerk responsible for the geographical area in which the sheriff officer works. Sheriff officers must show you their identity book if you ask to see it.
Where legal papers are being delivered, sheriff officers may be accompanied by a witness. As such a witness is not a sheriff officer, they will not carry with them the same form of identification as the sheriff officer.
If you want to confirm the identity of someone saying they are a sheriff officer, you can ask for the name of the firm the sheriff officer works for and contact them.
For more information, see the Scottish Government’s guidance on Sheriff officer powers when they visit your home or business.