Debt worries?…you don’t have to stand alone! If you are receiving paltry pay packets or feeble benefits yet still struggling to pay outrageous council tax demands or simply trying to afford a decent home and stuff to put in it you’re probably in debt.
If we allow it to, a burden of debt can grind us down, keep us awake at night, make life miserable. Daily bombardments of final demands, threatening letters and menacing phone calls leave us feeling anxious and isolated. It’s time to realise that the Sheriff Officers are not as scary as they’d like us to think.
The purpose of this article is to offer support, encouragement and advice to anyone who finds themselves up against Sheriff Officers. Lessons learnt over a decade ago during the anti-poll tax struggle show that armed with a blend of sound information, solidarity and a strong nerve we can leave the snoops and bullies chasing shadows and pleading for pennies. If you feel it’s all getting too much the solution is simple – solidarity!
DEBT- NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF
Many people have found themselves in debt because of the Council Tax. A particularly vile technique used by politicians and the media to blame the poor for high Council Tax levels is to point the finger at non payers accusing them of being antisocial and of driving up the tax for everyone else. It’s time to explode this myth once and for all.
It’s clear this tax is unjust. People living in mansions are paying only a little more than those in council flats. Local services need funding – those with the cash should cough up some compensation for the poor they’ve robbed it from. People should be proud to resist this disgraceful tax and the mercenary souls who try to enforce it.
Similarly banks and finance houses hound the poor while themselves getting billions in handouts from the public.
TOP TIPS FOR DEBT BUSTERS
- DON’T tell them anything. It’s vital not to give Sheriff Officers any information about your bank, your employer or about anything else
- DON’T give them your phone number, you are under no obligation to do so
- DON’T let Sheriff’s Officers intimidate you. These are lapdogs not rottweilers – their bark is always worse than their bite
- DON’T worry too much. Sometimes it can be hard to clear your mind when they are hounding you but it is important to remember that they can’t jail you, beat you, rob you of all your belongings or have you hung, drawn and quartered – in fact their powers are very limited
- DON’T let them get you talking. No matter how reasonable they may sound they are just trawling for information or for signs of weakness. Be safe – say nothing
- DON’T tell them anything. This one is worth repeating
- DO phone ECAP on 0131 557 6242 for advice, support and solidarity (staffed Tuesdays 12 to 3pm)
Please note – all information here relates to Scotland only. The law is different for England & Wales.
DEALING WITH SHERIFF’S OFFICERS AND DEBT COLLECTORS LETTERS
Entire forests have been destroyed to produce the innumerable threatening letters the Sheriff’s Officers dispatch into our homes. But don’t panic – these letters are computer generated. You are one of thousands receiving the same letter. There are many letters they can send carrying many different threats, most of which are empty threats. Check elsewhere on this page for details on particular issues. Look at the letter closely.
- Is it threatening bankruptcy?
- Does it state that they are coming on a specific date to carry out an “attachment”?
If so look at the sections below on these subjects.
- Does it give a specific date for a court hearing?
Then contact us for advice.
But almost always the letter will not give any specific dates. If it merely says action will follow “after 7 days”, or that they will visit “week commencing” such and such a date, or some such vague wording, then this does NOT give them the right to enter your home.
If you are in any doubt about a Sheriff Officer’s letter, ring us 0131 557 6242 or visit us any Tuesday 12 to 3pm at ACE, 17 West Montgomery Place, EH7 5HA where ECAP is based.
If you receive a letter from debt collectors (as opposed to Sheriff Officers) remember that they have no legal powers and can take no action against you without going to court. These letters are merely designed to intimidate you into cooperation with their demands.
Don’t respond to a Sheriff or debt collectors letter by ringing them up – they will only use this to try and get information from you, no matter how friendly they seem. For example if they get your phone number they will then be able to ring you up.
IF A SHERIFF OFFICER OR DEBT COLLECTOR KNOCKS ON YOUR DOOR
Occasionally, Sheriff’s Officers might knock on your door. If you are not in, or do not answer, they can do nothing. If you do answer, just say “Ms./Mr. Bloggs isn’t in, I’m just a visitor” and just shut the door. Whatever you do, don’t talk to them – tell them nothing. You are under no obligation to speak to them. Even if they catch you unaware and you admit who you are, don’t let them in.
Sometimes they issue threats, and overstate their powers. They may say you have to pay them immediately, they may threaten to bring the police, they may threaten to come into your home. These are all lies, they cannot force you to do any of them. Debt is a civil matter, it’s nothing to do with the police.
If anyone turns up on your doorstep asking to discuss debt who is NOT a Sheriff Officer (for example from a private debt collection company) remember that they have no statutory powers in Scotland and should be simply asked to leave. If they persist in harassing you contact us for advice and support. We have template letters dealing with this situation.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE BEING PHONED BY DEBT COLLECTORS OR SHERIFF OFFICERS
Don’t ever give your number to sheriff officers or debt collectors. But if they do get hold of your number, you don’t need to put up with their calls. There are a number of tactics open to you to have this type of harassment stopped. For example we have template letters available which quote the Communications Act 2003 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 demanding that your telephone no. be removed from the database. [can the new EU data protection powers be used here too?]
Refuse to discuss anything over the phone with them. Contact us, or another reliable independent advice group, who can write on your behalf stating that in future all contact concerning the debt MUST be done through your advisers.
CAN THE SHERIFF OFFICERS SEIZE YOUR PROPERTY?
The Debt Arrangement and Attachment (Scotland) Act (2003) makes it much more difficult for the Sheriff officers to collect debts through the seizure of personal property.
The “attachment” of household goods is similar to the old poindings and warrant sales – it means the Sheriffs come into your home and value goods and then they can be sold.
This now cannot be done merely with the summary warrant – it can only take place after a second application to the Sheriff for an “exceptional attachment order”. This requires a court hearing which you can defend.
Before the Exceptional Attachment Order can be granted debtors must be offered a “debt advice package” and access to advisers – though in practice this seems to be only sending you a general advice leaflet with some contact details.
“Exceptional Attachment Orders” do not seem to be much used – to date no-one who has approached us has had one granted against them.
DEALING WITH ATTACHMENTS
Even if they do succeed in gaining an Exceptional Attachment Order, there are easy and practical tactics you can use to make sure the sheriff officers are wasting their time. Elsewhere on this page you can find a list of the things they can and can’t take. You will notice immediately that the “can’t” list is very long and the “can” list is very short!
Since you will normally be given some days notice about when the attachment will happen it is a smart move to temporarily remove a few of life’s little luxuries to a friends place. The scum will have to fix another date to come back again so you can relax for a while.
Of course even if you have the confidence of knowing that there is nothing worth taking in the house it can still be an uncomfortable experience having these people in the house. The solution is to have a few friends or supporters drop by during the day in question to offer a bit of solidarity. You could arrange a rota so that you’re never alone.
It is worth bearing in mind that experience shows that the Sheriff Officers will behave themselves when doing their “home visits” so you needn’t expect abuse and strong-arm tactics. Even so if you can get your hands on a kiddies tape recorder (they can’t poind toys) it’s worthwhile carrying it around as they prowl around, it all adds to their sense of discomfort.
The most important rule is to tell them that you won’t be answering any questions – and stick to it.
So remember – don’t leave any valuables lying around, don’t answer questions, and have some support. That way they’ll leave with their tails between their legs.
WHAT THEY CAN’T TAKE AND WHAT THEY CAN
Items exempt from “attachment”: Beds and bedding, household linen, chairs and settees, tables, food, lights and light fittings, heating appliances, curtains, floor coverings, fridges, articles connected with storing, preparing or eating food, articles for cleaning, mending or pressing clothes, furniture for storing food, clothes, bedding and food or food related equipment, tools for maintenance and repair of house or its contents, a home computer and accessories, microwaves, radios, telephones, a T.V., clothing, tools of trade or articles reasonably required for work, medical aids and equipment, books or other articles necessary for education or training, toys and child related articles.
In practice this leaves them only interested in: VCRs, DVD players, CD players and other electrical “luxury goods”.
Note however that the Sheriffs can still attach belongings which are outside your home, without an exceptional attachment order – practically that means cars/motorbikes/pushbikes plus anything that is in a garage or outbuilding. So if you have a vehicle and are expecting them park it a couple of blocks away (but they cannot attach a vehicle “reasonably required” if it is cost less than £1,000). Another tactic is to register the vehicle in someone else’s name.
CHALLENGING AN EXCEPTIONAL ATTACHMENT ORDER
There are several ways you can challenge an Exceptional Attachment Order, but you must act quickly – contact us for more info.
DEALING WITH WAGE ARRESTMENTS
Sheriff Officers have the power to demand that your employer hands over a proportion of your wages for the payment of debts. This is, of course only of any use to them if they manage to find out where you work.
This is not easy for them unless you tell them. If you refuse to give them any info about yourself this can’t happen. They just don’t have the resources to send out spies to follow you around. On occasions they have been known to ask neighbours so if you are on good terms with your neighbours it would be worth having a wee word with them.
Even if they do manage to find out where you work there are strict limits to what they can take from your wages. If you earn less than £85 they cannot take anything. If you take home between £145 and £160 per week they could take £13 and if you earn £250 and £265 per week they can take £32 (note that these figures refer to net earnings i.e. after tax and NI contributions.)
It’s worth remembering that it’s highly unlikely that they will track you down unless you or someone who knows you volunteers the information.
If you are on benefits it is difficult to hide where your income comes from – however it is still important that you don’t help the authorities by giving Sheriff Officers or creditors any information. Finding you, getting a summary warrant and going through the process of taking money off your benefits can take a long time. Remember that the longer they take to find you, the better off you will be.
Once the Council has obtained a summary warrant, they have the power to take deductions for Council Tax debts from Income Support, Job Seekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Pension Credit. The amount they can take is limited to £3.25 per week (as at December 2009 – it is usually increased slightly each April). Deductions cannot be made from other benefits for Council Tax debts.
BANK ACCOUNT SECURITY – PROTECT YOUR ASSETS
Probably the most effective tool the Sheriff’s men have is the power to freeze your bank account. However there are some simple security procedures you can use to make life difficult for them. Avoid the bigger banks and building societies and use different initials for your accounts such as using a middle name, or different surnames such as a maiden name etc. Consider using credit unions which exist in many areas: check the telephone directory.
The Sheriff Officers usual procedure when hunting for folks bank accounts is simply to send lists of names to the banks and hope for the best so even small variations in the “format” of the name you use to open an account can cause difficulties. You could also open accounts in the name of your kids if you have them.
Another smart move is to split up your money over several accounts with different banks so that you don’t have all your eggs in one basket. Joint accounts are not a good idea as any arrestment served will affect both account holders.
You should, of course, never volunteer any information about your bank details. If they do track down your account they will serve an “arrestment” which can cover funds up to your total debt plus cost – but this only applies to funds in the account on the date of the arrestment. Any money paid in after that date is still accessible to you although they may of course seek another warrant to steal that from you as well so it should be moved to a new account as soon as possible. There is a limit on what can be arrested in your bank account. At present (October 2013) a minimum of £415 must be left free from arrestment. This amount is known as the ‘protected minimum balance’ See here
If all the money paid into your account comes from benefits or tax credits the account cannot be touched. Both the Scottish Law Commission and Scottish Executive agree that social security benefits are exempt from arrestment in terms of section 187 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (see Enforcement of Civil Obligations in Scotland, Scottish Executive report, at paragraph 5.245).
If they do freeze your account in these circumstances contact us for advice on what to do See here There are copies of letters you can send to the Sheriff Officers and to your bank if they do freeze an account with benefits in it, though if you are in Edinburgh it could help to seek support from ECAP.
So keep your money on the move and think carefully about what bank to entrust your cash to. Use variant names, initials and spellings to throw them off your scent and split your money across different accounts. Make life tough for them so they can’t make life tougher for you.
THE THREAT OF BANKRUPTCY
The threat of bankruptcy has recently been used by Edinburgh City Council in an attempt to pressurise Council Tax debtors. Bankruptcy involves the “sequestration” of your assets (excluding items exempt from poinding/attachment – see list above.
They can only make you bankrupt if you owe more than £3,000 – if you owe less than that, then it cannot be used. They sometimes send out letters threatening bankruptcy even if you owe less than £3,000, just to try and scare you – don’t fall for it.
Sequestration means that someone else takes over and manages your finances. This person is called the “trustee”. The trustee then comes to an arrangement with your creditors about paying off your debts. Home-owners or those running businesses would be most at risk from this procedure. But it’s worth bearing in mind that it is a difficult and inefficient means of recovering debts.
If you have significant savings and especially if you have a mortgage then it is something you have to take seriously. However if you are renting your home and are generally skint then they are very unlikely to proceed with bankruptcy. If you are threatened with bankruptcy you should contact us for help and advice.
We have been successful in several cases in getting the Council to back off from bankruptcy threats and accept a relatively low repayment agreement. On one occasion a group of us accompanied a family threatened with bankruptcy to a Councillor’s surgery to make our point – this worked. You have more strength with the backing of an organisation than as an individual.
Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty Solidarity Network brings together people who are willing to accompany each other to any potentially difficult interviews, including ones concerning debt. The network is also ready to mobilise if people are threatened by sheriff officers or with threats such as bankruptcy.
Contact us if you’d like to join, or find out more. Don’t face them alone!
A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF DEALING WITH THE SHERIFF’S MEN
(Please note that this account relates to incidents prior to the new legislation detailed above, which has made it much more difficult for the Sheriff Officers to enter your home.)
“We are in debt with council tax arrears covering about four full years worth. At first we struggled to pay the full amount but as it went up to crazy levels we paid only what we could afford and now we don’t pay at all. Every year we go through the whole process of getting threats and final demands in the post, then warnings about court proceedings and summary warrants. We’ve got used to this over the years although at first it used to cause a lot of worry, until we realised that most of it is just bluster.
On two occasions we were threatened with Warrant Sales. This is the most upsetting thing they can threaten you with as it actually involves them coming into your home. We contacted people who had fought against Warrant Sales during the anti-Poll Tax struggle who were able to tell us how to make the “poinding” (when they come to value your goods) a minor nuisance rather than a major trauma.
We were pleased to find out that they can only take luxury goods and that they have to give you several days notice. We just moved our stereo, TV and computer out of the house to a friend’s place for two nights. For the first poinding we arranged for friends and sympathisers to come round during the day for support and company but as it happened the Sheriff’s Officers arrived before anyone turned up. I was by myself with my two year old daughter when the doorbell went. There was only one guy on the doorstep, which I knew was wrong-legally there has to be two of them. It turned out he didn’t want to do the poinding at all but just to get me talking.
I had made up my mind in advance that they wouldn’t get me talking so I told him to fetch his colleague and do the poinding. I politely explained that I would neither answer questions nor talk about anything with them. `He was a bit surprised that I wanted him to do the poinding. I felt that I had called his bluff. He went and got his mate and they shuffled around the flat for about two minutes and, after making another attempt to get me talking which I just ignored they walked out empty handed looking pretty stupid.
I tape recorded them while they were in the house in case they got cheeky. I used my daughter’s Tomy tape recorder as they could have poinded a “grown up” one. It was a pretty good feeling when they had left and I knew I had wasted a lot of time worrying over very little.”
The Insolvency Service (Mon to Fri 9am – 5pm) 0300 678 0015
National Debtline Free phone (Mon to Fri 9am – 8pm, Sat 9.30am – 1pm) 0808 808 4000
The Debt Counsellors Charitable Trust (Mon to Fri 9am – 5pm) England & Wales only 0300 456 2726
Accountant in Bankruptcy Scotland only