A visit from a Sheriff Officer is one of the things that people in debt fear the most. But you can take away some of the fear by understanding the powers they hold and what you can do if you are expecting a visit from a Sheriff Officer about unpaid council tax debt.
Sheriff Officers are officers of the Sheriff Court and are appointed to enforce court orders. It means they hold considerable powers. It also means those powers and what they can and can’t do are strictly regulated.
Despite being officers of the court, Sheriff Officers are in fact private companies. There are lots of firms of Sheriff Officers in Scotland. Two of the biggest companies are Stirling Park and Scott and Co. Sheriff Officers can also be self employed.
A Sheriff Officer is appointed to carry out the orders of the Sheriff Court by the individual, business or organisation that asked the Sheriff Court to give the order. The Sheriff Officer that is appointed has the authority to act on behalf of the individual, business or organisation that has appointed them.
Councils may appoint a Sheriff Officer to enforce a court order from the Sheriff Court to collect unpaid council tax, non domestic rates, housing benefit overpayment or former tenant arrears. Companies may engage them to collect unpaid consumer debt.
How will Sheriff Officers try to collect unpaid council tax debt?
Sheriff Officers will try to collect the money that is owed in several different ways. The first thing they will do is ask you to contact them to put a repayment plan in place. They can request information such as employer details, National Insurance number and bank account details to help them with this.
If a repayment plan is not put in place, the creditor can return to the Sheriff Court to ask for a formal charge for payment. This gives the Sheriff Officer additional powers to collect the money. It means they can arrest your wages (take money directly from your pay packet), freeze your banks accounts and take money from your bank accounts. They can also carry out what is known as exceptional attachment. This is when the Sheriff Officer visits your home to collect your belongings and sell them to repay the debt.
If you are expecting a visit from a Sheriff Officer to collect unpaid council tax debt, here is what you need to know.
Sheriff Officers cannot enter your home at any time of the day or night
If a Sheriff Officer is visiting your home to collect your possessions to sell them to recover the unpaid debt (or, to use the official term, carry out exceptional attachment), they cannot enter your home at any time.
They must come between 8.00am and 8.00pm on Monday to Saturday. They cannot come on Sundays or on public holidays such as Christmas Day or Boxing Day.
The Sheriff Officer should write to let you know when they are coming. You must also have received a Debt Advice and Information Pack from your creditor (in the case of unpaid Council Tax, this is your local council).
Sheriff Officers cannot charge unlimited fees
The amounts that a Sheriff Officer can charge are set out in law. In the case of exceptional attachment (taking your possessions to sell them to recover the unpaid council tax), the Sheriff Officer can charge a fixed fee for each stage of the collection process. They can only charge each fee once. There are three stages: service notice of entry, arranging attachment and executing attachment. On top of this, the Sheriff Officer will also charge a fixed fee on any debt up to £2,737. Amounts over this are charged a percentage fee.
You may also receive a bill if the Sheriff Officer gained entry to your home by forcing a lock or breaking a window. (Sheriff Officers are entitled to use “reasonable force” like this to gain entry to your home if needs be.) If this has happened, the council has to pay for the replacement, but the costs may be passed on to you.
Other myths about unpaid council tax busted
The times that a Sheriff Officer can visit your home and the amount they can charge are two of the biggest myths surrounding them. While we are on the subject of busting myths in relation to unpaid council tax, there are a couple of others to look at.
Council tax and prison
If you cannot pay your council tax because you cannot afford it, you will not go to prison.
If you do not pay your council tax, you will be summoned to court for a means assessment. The means assessment finds out if you can afford to pay your council tax.
If the court finds that you cannot afford to pay your council tax, you will not go to prison.
If the court finds that you can afford to pay your council tax but are not paying it, then you could go to prison.
Council tax and credit ratings
Councils do not share council tax details with credit reference agencies. This means that if you have unpaid council tax or council tax fines, your credit rating will not be affected, so there is no need to worry about this.
Where to get help if you have council tax debt
If you have council tax debt – or any other kind of debt – it is easy to feel as if you are alone and no help is available. This is not the case. It is easy and quick to get an appointment with a debt counsellor. Organisations such as Council Tax Advisors provide free advice to people with problem debt such as unpaid council tax. They can give you information on the options open to you. They can also negotiate with creditors and Sheriff Officers on your behalf. They provide valuable support when you need it most.
So if you have got problem debt, are being pursued for unpaid council tax or are expecting a visit from a Sheriff Officer, get in touch with Council Tax Advisors today. It is never too late to get help!