Powers of sheriff officers
Sheriff officers are officers of the court in Scotland. They are employed by private firms or are self-employed and take instructions to enforce court orders.
These court orders can give sheriff officers the power 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 household in certain situations
- make sure you get important legal documents.
The court officers for the Court of Session are called Messengers-at-Arms. They are also sheriff officers and have powers to enforce court orders from the Court of Session.
Sheriff officers are not the police
Sheriff officers only have powers to enforce court orders or deliver legal papers. They are not police officers.
Checking a sheriff officer's identity
A sheriff officer has to show you their ID if you ask to see it.
They have a red ID booklet signed by the local sheriff clerk. It has a photo of the sheriff officer and the crest of the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service on it.
If legal papers are being served to you, a sheriff officer might have a witness with them. The witness is not a sheriff officer, so they will not have the same ID.
If you are anxious about the identity of anyone claiming to be a sheriff officer, you can ask for the name of the firm they work for. You can phone the firm to confirm their identity.
Sheriff officers' power to enter property
A sheriff officer can only come into your home if they have permission from the court to do so. You can ask the sheriff officer to see the document that says they can enter.
It might not be clear that the document gives them permission to enter your home. The document will usually have a phrase like grants warrant for all lawful execution - this gives them permission to enter your home.
Sheriff officers' power to force entry
A sheriff officer can use necessary reasonable force to enter your home if they have the right authority. This means, for example, they can force open a door, break a lock or break a window.
You can be charged with breach of the peace for stopping a sheriff from entering your home.
If a broken lock or window needs replaced
The person pursuing the court order has to pay for the lock or window to be replaced.
This is paid as part of the sheriff officers' fees and charges.
If you are not there when a sheriff officer needs to enter your home
Sheriff officers can force entry if you are not home, but only if they are:
- evicting you
- making sure work has been carried out
- seizing possessions.
When a sheriff is seizing possessions to sell because you owe money, they cannot enter the home if there is no one there who:
- is at least 16 years of age and understands what is happening
- speaks or understands English
- is able to understand the situation.
If you are not there when a sheriff officer needs to serve documents
The sheriff officer will deliver the documents to anyone else who is there.
If there is no one else home, the sheriff officer will post the documents through the letterbox or hang them on your door.
If they do this, the sheriff officer will also send you a copy of the documents by first-class post.
Sheriff officers' power to evict
If you have been evicted, a sheriff officer might be sent to your home to carry the eviction out.
You will receive a notice called a charge for removing from heritable property. This lets you know that the eviction will take place within 2 weeks.
You should also be told the date of the eviction 48 hours before it happens.
You can read more about eviction by sheriff officers on the Shelter Scotland website.
Sheriff officers' power to take possessions
If you owe a debt, the court could take possessions from your home to sell and help pay the debt.
A sheriff officer might be given an exceptional attachment order - this gives them power to enter your home and take items.
Sheriff officers can only take non-essential items. This means they cannot take possessions that are essential such as clothing, beds and cookers.
You will usually get 4 days’ notice if a sheriff officer is coming to take possessions.
They’re only allowed to come between 8am and 8pm from Monday to Friday unless they have a court order that says otherwise.
When the sheriff officer is enforcing a court order for debt, you can still contact the person or company you owe the money to and make a payment.
You might be able to stop any further action by negotiating with the person you owe money to or by making a payment directly to the sheriff officers.
Read more about action a creditor can take for debt.
Can a sheriff officer take someone else's possessions
A sheriff officer can only take and sell possessions that belong to you. It is up to you to prove that the possessions belong to someone else.
If you own something jointly with someone else, it can still be taken and sold. The other person can then claim the value of their share before or after it is sold.
Sheriff officer's power to remove people
Sheriff officers have the power to remove people from your home in certain situations.
Can a sheriff officer remove you from your home
A sheriff officer has the power to physically remove you from the property if you’re being evicted. You could be charged with breach of the peace if you’re angry and obstructive.
The police can be asked to attend an eviction but cannot help in the process.
Can a sheriff officer remove a child from your home
A sheriff officer can be used by the court to move a child to a place of safety.
The sheriff officer might also be asked to move a child from someone who has no parental rights and responsibilities to someone who does.
This can happen at any time during the day and sometimes without warning.
Read more about children who need local authority services.
Can a sheriff officer remove a violent partner from your home
A sheriff officer can remove a violent partner from your home. This is likely to be done with the police.
Read more about domestic violence.
Sheriff officers' power to enforce debts from elsewhere in the UK
Sheriff officers have the power to enforce a debt in Scotland from elsewhere in the UK, but only if the creditor has taken a number of steps to do so.
Bailiffs from elsewhere in the UK have no power of enforcement in Scotland.
Creditors from elsewhere in the UK must go through a court process and instruct a sheriff officer to enforce the action.
Making a complaint about a sheriff officer
You should write to the firm that employs the sheriff officer if you think that they have:
- behaved in an unreasonable or disreputable way
- exceeded their powers.
If you are not happy with the firm’s response or do not want to complain to the firm directly, you can write to the Sheriff Principal. They can be contacted through the sheriff clerk at your local sheriff court.
You can also complain to the Society of Messengers-at-Arms and Sheriff Officers.
It has its own disciplinary procedures but often handles complaints from the Sheriff Principal's office. Its address is: