Many people who need to repay a debt wonder if they are going to be visited by a bailiff or a debt collector. These people also believe that they are the same. A debt collector and a Sheriff Officer (Scotland’s equivalent to a Bailiff) can both visit you at home, however, the two are very different. If you currently owe a debt, you should know the difference between the two.
The first thing that you should know is that a debt collector doesn’t have any legal power to make you pay your debt and a Sheriff Officer does.
Below, you will learn what each can do to collect a debt in different situations.
What Is A Sheriff Officer?
They have the legal power to collect a debt. Some are self-employed, some work for private companies, and there are some bailiffs who work for the council.
The most common debts that Sheriff Officers collect include back payments on child maintenance, County Court judgments (CCJ’s), parking fines, and unpaid council taxes.
A Sheriff Officer has the right to legally visit your property. By law, they are allowed to take your possessions and sell them to repay your debt.
Sheriff Officer are given this power because the type of debts that they collect is a top priority.
In This Guide...
What Is A Debt Collector?
Debt collectors are also known as doorstop collectors and field agents. They are usually employed by a creditor or a debt collection agency. In some cases, you will receive a letter from the creditor to let you know that a debt collector will be visiting your home, however, most likely to catch you by surprise.
The reason that debt collectors don’t want to give you any warning is that they are not legally allowed to enter your home and take your belongings the way that a bailiff can. The most that a debt collector is legally allowed to do is knock on your door and ask you to pay.
They cannot demand payment and they cannot force you to make it.
Can A Scottish Trust Deed Help?
Yes. A Scottish Trust Deed will prevent a Sheriff Officer or debt collector from taking any action against you. You can apply online here.
When Is A Sheriff Officer Allowed To Collect A Debt?
In most cases, court action is necessary for a Sheriff Officer to come to your home.
This means that the Sheriff Court has signed an order. Whether the court signs the order or not would depend on the type of debt that you owe. The exception to this rule is HM Revenue & Customs. They can legally send a Sheriff Officer to your home without taking you to court first.
All debts, even those to HM Revenue & Customs must be made aware to you before a Sheriff Officer can get involved. If you ignore correspondence sent to you by the court and you have failed to set up a mutually agreed upon payment plan, a Sheriff Officer can legally come to your home.
When Is A Debt Collector Allowed To Collect A Debt?
Debt collectors often work for debt collection agencies or for internal collections team hired by the creditor. If you have defaulted on your payment, your debt will be sold to a debt collection agency. If you aren’t sure who owns your debt, you should contact the original creditor to find out who you should be making the payments to.
The Debt That Sheriff Officers Can Collect Vary
County Court bailiffs are allowed to collect most types of debt that you can lend to a business or an individual. In order to the Sheriff Officer to collect the debt, the creditor must have already filed for a Decree (Scotland’s equivalent of a CCJ (County Court Judgement) and you have failed to make the payments that the court ordered you to make.
Other types of Sheriff Officers are allowed to collect debts that you owe to your local authority or the Government. Some common debts that can be collected include:
- Unpaid child maintenance
- Unpaid Council tax
- Criminal fines
- Parking penalties that were issued by the local authority
- Debts to HM Revenue & Customs such as tax credit over-payments, income tax, National Insurance, or VAT.
What Type Of Debt Do Debt Collectors Collect?
Most debt collectors collect a commercial debt. A few of the most common debts collected include:
- Credit card debt
- Unpaid utility bills
- Unpaid loans
- Other debts (debt from the local council and unpaid loans given by an individual)
What Are Sheriff Officers Legally Allowed To Do?
Sheriff Officer are only legally allowed to come to your home after they have sent you a letter to let you know that they are going to be coming. The letter is called a Notice of Enforcement. They cannot come to your home until 7 days after you received the notice.
Weekends don’t count, therefore, you will have 9 to 10 days to pay your debt in full or set up a payment arrangement. If you don’t, a bailiff will come to your home.
The only way that a Sheriff Officer is legally allowed to enter your home is in a peaceful way, through a door, with your permission. They are legally obligated to let you know who they are and why they are there. Sheriff Officers are not allowed to force their way into your home or break down your door.
I’ve Opened The Door, Can I Stand In The Way?
If you are standing in the way, the Sheriff Officer cannot push you out the way to gain access to the home. If a Sheriff Officer knocks on your door, it is best that you don’t let them in. Finally, if there only people home are children under the age of 16, they cannot enter your home.
The only way that a Sheriff Officer can forcibly enter your home is if they are collecting a criminal fine. This type of force can only be used as a last resort and most Sheriff Officers rarely use force.
Sheriff Officers who are working for HM Revenue & Customs are allowed to use force if they are collecting certain debts, however, they would need the court’s permission. This type of force is rarely used.
If you let the Sheriff Officer into your home, they can start going through your things so that they can make a list of anything that you own of value. These things would later be sold at auction to repay your debt. If you don’t want to open the door to your home for a Sheriff Officer, you can speak to them through a door or an open window.
What Happens If I Let Them In?
If you let the Sheriff Officer in, there are certain things that they can take and there are certain things that the cannot. Most won’t take your belongings during the first visit. They will give you a chance to make arrangements to pay your debt. This is called a Controlled Goods Agreement.
If you neglect to make the agreed-upon payments, they will come back to your home and take all of the items on their list. These things will be sold at auction and the money will be put toward your debt. When the Sheriff Officer comes back to your home with their list, they are allowed to use force to enter your home.
Collecting Debts From Businesses
If a Sheriff Officer is collecting a debt from a business, their forced entry restrictions are different. If you own a shop or you are self-employed, a Sheriff Officer is allowed to break in.
What Can Debt Collectors Do?
Debt collectors have no special legal power to get you to pay your debt. They are allowed to contact you in a letter, over the phone, and they can visit you at home. If a debt collector does come to your home, you are not required to open the door or let them inside.
If you ask them to leave your property, they are legally required to do so and they are never allowed to take anything from your home.
If you are willing to talk to the debt collector, they must show you their identification if you ask. The debt collector can ask you to make a payment to them right there and then, however, you are not legally required to do so.
It is best to make arrangements with your creditor over the phone so that you can set up a reasonable payment plan. If you do choose to pay right then and there, make sure that you get a receipt and you hold onto it.
Confidential Debt Advice
If you are worried about debt collectors contacting you or s Sheriff Officer visiting your home, we offer debt help in Scotland.
If you don’t know whether your creditor is going to use a Sheriff Officer or a debt collector, you should give them a call so they can let you know.
If you are getting calls from a debt collector who is threatening to send Sheriff Officers to your home without taking court action first, you have the legal right to make a formal complaint and you should.
Can bailiffs enter my home for someone else’s debt?
Bailiffs are granted their powers by the court. If the court order has your address on it they are entitled to attempt to gain access to the property. Even if they gain entry, however, they should only take personal ‘luxury items’ belonging to the person named on the court order.
There are some clear rules about what bailiffs cannot take (no matter who they belong to): they cannot take items needed for work (e.g. laptops) or essential home items such as most cookers, beds and sofas.
But there are grey areas: if the bailiffs want to seize the possessions of your housemate and your guitar happens to be in their room, you’ll need to prove it’s yours to stop it being taken. If your games console is in your bedroom, it wouldn’t be taken. If in a communal area, it might be unless you can prove ownership.
Can bailiffs enter my home if I’m not there?
Generally, bailiffs in England and Wales cannot enter your home unless you or another adult lets them in. If you are out, they won’t usually be able to enter your home but there are some exceptions. Bailiffs may be able to force entry if they have been into your property before. And if they find a way of gaining access without using force (i.e. via an unlocked door), they will be able to make ‘peaceful entry’ even if no one is home.
In Scotland, sheriff officers cannot enter a property to seize possessions if no one in the house is 16 or over, understands English or understands the situation (e.g. because of mental disability).
What happens if I don’t let bailiffs in?
Depending on where you live in the UK, bailiffs (or sheriff officers in Scotland) have slightly different powers if you refuse entry. In England and Wales even if you refuse entry, they can enter through any unlocked door between 6am and 9pm as long as they use ‘peaceful means’. If you’ve locked all your doors, they may be able to force entry providing they have the appropriate court warrant and the debts relate to unpaid court fines or taxes. If the debt relates to anything else (e.g. credit card arrears, Council Tax debts etc) the bailiff will not be able to force entry.
In Scotland, sheriff officers have greater powers of entry, so they can enter your home using reasonable force to collect a wider range of debts. Again, they must have the appropriate court order to do this.
Even if you succeed in stopping bailiffs entering your home, they will be back. Whilst you can complain if you feel you are being harassed, bailiffs are entitled to make repeat visits. The simplest, quickest way of stopping them is to speak to a debt advisor.
Can a bailiff refuse a payment plan?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth making them an offer. You can negotiate with bailiffs and sheriff officers before or when they visit your home (negotiating from an upstairs window or via the letterbox is acceptable if you don’t want to let them in).
If you can’t afford to pay back all the money you owe but you can afford to pay something each week/month, offer that. Ideally, the earlier you contact them the better. That way you can send them your budget and payment plan in advance of a visit rather than trying to do it on the hoof.
If they refuse the plan talk to a debt management professional immediately.
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a Scottish Trust Deed £748
(total contractual repayments)
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