By Alan McIntosh

NEW figures published by the Accountant in Bankruptcy show that sheriff officers, the Scottish equivalent of bailiffs, have become almost entirely dependent on Scottish local authorities and council tax arrears to sustain their business model.

The Scottish Diligence Statistics show 88 per cent of all Sheriff Officer work carried out in 2018-19 was for Scottish councils collecting council tax arrears.

The statistics also showed that councils in Scotland increased their use of legal debt recovery procedures by 15 per cent in 2018-19, which included serving formal demands for payment, executing wage arrestments and freezing bank accounts.

The sharpest increase was in relation to bank account arrestments, which increased from 138,021 in 2017-18 to 167,356 in 2018-19, representing a 21 per cent increase. In contrast other creditors, such as banks, credit card firms and HMRC, reduced their use of sheriff officers by 42 per cent over the same period. This is part of a longer-term trend that has seen the use of sheriff officers by non-local authority creditors fall by 24.3 per cent since 2011-12, whilst councils have increased their use by 27.8 per cent over the same period.

Inevitably, this raises the question why Scottish councils are increasing their use of formal debt recovery at a time when other creditors are abandoning it? Even the rarely-used practice of Sheriff Officers entering people’s homes to seize goods increased by almost 20 per cent for council tax debts, from 183 times in 2017-18 to 225 in 2018-19. The number of occasions non-council tax creditors used the same procedure was only four.

The concern is that the increased use of sheriff officers by local authorities is a debt recovery strategy designed more to serve the interests of sheriff officers than those of local authorities and is plunging thousands into greater debt and misery. It is estimated the cost of sheriff officer fees onto council tax debts could be as high as £30 million per year.

Such a threat-based strategy is the opposite of the collaborative strategies with local money advice services that organisations like the Improvement Service have called for. However, with such services having suffered a 45 per cent reduction in their funding from local authorities between 2014-17, arguably such an approach is no longer viable.

The figures, however, should also act as a warning for the Scottish Government when they set next year’s budget for councils. As much as increasing funding is essential to protect local services, increasing the power of councils to increase council tax bills is not enough unless there are funding strategies in place to increase the provision of free, face-to-face money advice services.

The statistics also demand other questions to be answered.

When Charge for Payments by sheriff officers are being issued more than 200,000 times a year, bank accounts are being frozen more than167,000 times and wages arrestments are being executed 70,000 times, in a country with only 2.46m households, how long can we put off reforming local government funding in this country?

Equally, when the business models of sheriff officers, who are essential for protecting the efficacy of our court system, have become so dependant on a broken system to generate fees to protect their existence, what happens when we do reform local government funding?

How do we ensure court orders can still be enforced and at an affordable price?

Alan McIntosh is a Senior Money Adviser and blogger on debt. He blogs at The opinions expressed are his own.