Sunday, 18 September 2011

Badly Behaving Bailiffs

Until 2002, people in Scotland suffered the indignity of knowing their homes could be forcibly entered and their personal effects removed and sold if they fell into debt and in some cases even if there was no debt.  It was by the actions of the then Scottish Socialist leader Tommy Sheridan, that the anachronistic law was repealed so that poindings and warrants sales were no longer allowed in Scotland.

Around 80% of cases involving sheriff officers were to do with council tax debt. The past week I've been following this man's fight against bailiffs and their practices. (In Scotland, although commonly known as bailiffs, these individuals are officially known as sheriff officers or messengers-at-arms).

It's many years ago now since I had the misfortune of meeting sheriff officers. (They always appear in twos in Scotland, with one doing the verbal menacing and the other staying silent). They produced a summons which stated I had not paid council tax for several months - a completely false accusation. I was fortunate enough that day to contact a legal friend, who arrived here within half an hour to the startling sight of two sheriff officers and three policemen (called by the sheriff officers because I refused them admittance).  After showing my friend the relevant bank statements, he spoke on my behalf and eventually the five uninvited individuals left my property.

An exhausting and distressing few weeks followed - aside from the financial cost - to counteract the council's claim, but finally they admitted there had been an error; possibly due to a fault in their 'new' computerised system my lawyer was informed. No apology was given.

That Saturday was the day I lost respect for the police who sided with the sheriff officers and weren't prepared to listen to me.  It was also the day I realised how valuable my father's advice was: 'Always keep records of any money you spend no matter how small'.

The experience taught me what little power we have as individuals against the state. In fact we have none. Sheriff officers in Scotland, along with others such as utility companies, can still gain admission to your home with or without your permission, although debt procedure has been tightened since the introduction of the Debt Arrangement and Attachment (Scotland) Act 2002.

To fully understand the legislation requires a legal mind, but nowadays there is plenty help available online for anyone having problems with debt or debt collectors. Debt collectors who act illegally - as 'my' bullies did - need to be exposed. The only way that will happen is if the stigma associated with debt is removed and the police do what they're employed to do and that is protect the individual.


RMcGeddon said...

"The experience taught me what little power we have as individuals against the state. In fact we have none"

I think it depends on who you are SR. If you're an MP and a Lord you get the freedom to set off an explosion in your grounds that can be heard and felt 10 miles away. With doors being blown off their hinges and sensitive peatland habitat being damaged.
You don't even have to warn the local farmers or explain yourself in public..

subrosa said...

Mmm RM, there are big bucks involved when insurers physically investigate such cases. I'm sure the good laird wasn't interested in financial reward of course. He was offering his land for the good of the French.

Apogee said...

Its about time that the people were made aware in plain language how these things should be done under the law, and equally what help must be given by the police to the citizen in these circumstances, and the legal rights of ALL parties.

RMcGeddon said...

SR. It could all be part of a cunning plan - Build windmills on the damaged area - no more pesky newts or toads stopping an important subsidy farm lol

subrosa said...

I agree Apogee. It's a minefield trying to make sense of it all.

Until we had the information highway online, people believed 'authority' which has now been proved much less honest than ever thought.

subrosa said...

RM, it IS all part of a cunning plan. I would have thought you'd realised that by now. :)

Hamish said...

Very unpleasant experience, subrosa. the stuff of nightmares, even though it was a while ago.
I was in the "can pay, won't pay" camp over the poll tax. For a long time, the Sheriff Officers just wrote increasingly threatening letters which I ignored. They said they had power to plunder my bank account; hmm, welcome to my overdraft. They said they would get my employer to dock my wages; fat chance, since I was running my own company.
I finally threw in the towel when they sent heavies round when only my son was in the house. I paid only the outstanding tax and told them they could sue me for the penalty charge. So far they haven't done so.

pa_broon74 said...

When it comes to council tax, you have no rights, thats it.

I've also been on the receiving end of Sherriff Officers and debt collection agencies, with council tax arrears, the law is psoitively draconian.

A tip though for all other debt, if you are being chased by a DCA ( I was being chased for around £600 for a gym membership fees, I left it early because the service was crap.)

Cue threatening letters and many many phone calls. There is a civil statute called Prorugation of Jurisdiction (you'll need to google it for details.) Essentially it means if you are being taken to court, the peoploe doing it need to do so in the area you live. Many of the DCA's threaten action in Coventry (or in my case Southampton.) For them to engage legal council in Edinburgh makes the debt uneconomical to recover.

It doesn't work though with CT debt though, nothing does, it's a bit like being chased by a terminator.

Prorugation of Jurisdiction allows for a new sport, DCA-baiting. It is great fun winding up debt collectors on the telephone. The gym crowd lost interest when I agreed to pay by debit card, when they asked for the long card number I gave them the phone number they dialled to get me in the first place.

They hung up on me. :-)

RMcGeddon said...

SR. Maybe the noble Lords 'cunning plan' is to promote his new business venture ..


'Are you tired of your house or garden or street ?
We've the solution !
We have hundreds of insurance companies wanting to use unloved properties in their disaster investigations. We'll blow your house away and will provide 100% full replacement.
We're particularly interested in houses with an old gas central heating system or properties with large gardens to accomodate jet fighters and large explosions.

Please read our full terms and conditions.
Council properties not eligible.
All participants must show full property deeds on request.
'Traveller' sites not eligible without supporting documents from a Sheriff Officer of the Crown.

subrosa said...

The poll tax was good for me Hamish and it suited my circumstances but I appreciate many had reason to fight against it.

In my situation, nearly 15 years ago now I think, I hadn't had any letters from the council - which they eventually admitted, because I think they were sent to the same name at a different address.

Good for you though. I think when they met me they could humiliate me into paying the money and if I'd done that then I would be 'guilty'. I was so lucky to have had a legal pal around (he's now sadly dead) and without him, with three police supporting the sheriff officers, I may well have paid the money for peace.

As it was I didn't have the money and they said they wouldn't accept anything but cash. I would have had to cash in some of my pension to pay it. As it was Gordon Brown stole that part of my pension, so the state got it regardless.

subrosa said...

Good advice pa_broon and I hope others take note.

I'd a similar experience with BT when I changed to another phone provider just short of my 18 month contract with them. £218 was their fee for me breaking the contract and it rose to £681 within months with the endless debt collectors fees. (I still have the details on file hence my accuracy!).

Pa-broon, your knowledge would make a grand post. Would you consider that?

You're right about CT debt though.

subrosa said...

RM they can use my garden anytime as long as the price is right. :) Half a million would be fine as long as they underwrite the exclusion clause that it wasn't an 'natural occurrence'.

Observer said...

Sheriff Officers can only act when they have a court order. If a court order is to be enacted & the individual concerned won't co-operate then the police will support the Sheriff Officers - because they have been given an order by the court.

I am very surprised that you only knew about the Council Tax issue when the Sheriff Officers turned up, because the Council must have sent the summons notifying you of court action to the wrong person/address before the court order was granted. That sounds like a monumental screw up which a good lawyer would have pulverised the Council for.

Probably too late now, but that is a belter.

Observer said...

I think you are being un-necessarily harsh on Sheriff Officers. They can only act when the Sheriff has given them an order to act. If you think they are being bullies then the problem is with the court/the legislation.

What do you want power companies or Councils to do with people who genuinely won't pay what they owe? Just leave them?

subrosa said...

I assure you Observer, you were no more surprised than me. Nothing was sent to me -perhaps because their 'new' computer system screwed up and sent the letters (if they existed because we never received that evidence) elsewhere.

It was a monumental mess yet the council did little to help clear it up. That was left to me and my legal help for which I'll always be grateful, because without them I could well have paid out thousands. As it was it wasn't a cheap process to defend a decision for a council poinding.

Rest assured I must be on the 'don't mess with her' list in the council since then. If I knew then what I know now I'd have taken the council to the cleaners. At the time, and it was around 15 years ago, I was just relieved to be 'cleared' although it was perfectly obvious I had nothing to clear.

It was a most humiliating experience and I will never respect any authority again. Therefore I keep exact accounts of my dealings with any and thankfully nowadays they all have email addresses. It took them years to provide these because, I suppose, they knew then that their clients would have written evidence.

subrosa said...

Observer, no I don't think so. I was threatened with all sorts that day before I closed the door and phoned my legal friend, only to find the local inspector and two constables outside within 15 minutes.

That was bullying in my mind against one woman. I'll never forget it. Five men to gain access to a woman's home for a debt they didn't owe? Naw, it was bullying. But as I say it was a long time ago yet I still await an apology.

Of course I don't expect that but I do think someone like myself would do a far better job of speaking to folk in debt other than men in suits being threatening.

Let me say I know of people who have never paid council tax and yet they've never been approached by anyone. Therein lies the problem. Their debts are regularly written off and therefore added to the debt of people who do pay.

There must be a better system such as taking installments from wages etc.

pa_broon74 said...


I don't usually do serious blog posts, I like to keep it irreverent.

My blog entries are limited to rants about ithings, minging flatmates & being a crap shopper.

I come to your blog and others (Leland's, Anna Racoon etc) for the serious stuff. Never-the-less, when I get back to the office I'll try and put something together if you like.



subrosa said...

Please don't feel I'm pressurising you in any way pa_broon. I vaguely remember the days of minging flatmates although that can, in time, evolve to husbands or wives with similar habits. :)

Only do it if you have time or the inclination.

Wildgoose said...

I found out just hours before that I was due in Court for non-payment of Poll Tax.

I had paid in full by Direct Debit at the house I had bought, but they had taken my name from the Electoral Register for an old (rented) address from a couple of years back.

I turned up in the Court and they refused to believe me even when I waved my bank statements in front of them. They eventually conceded that I had paid but claimed that it was my fault?!

Needless to say, there was no apology.

To add insult to injury though, I had actually overpaid because Rotherham Council was one of the Councils whose charges were capped. They continued to take the full original amount out by Direct Debit and used my money (and that of the other suckers paying by Direct Debit) to subsidise non-payment.

Needless to say, I will now only pay my Council Tax by Standing Order.

subrosa said...

Isn't it so frustrating Wildgoose that we have to tolerate such inefficiency.

My council refuses to accept Standing Orders and will only accept Direct Debits. I've given up fighting against that.

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