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Explainer: Who and what are Ireland's sheriffs?

As repossessions increase, Ireland’s sheriffs find themselves in the news more and more. Here’s all you need to know about them.

The recent high-profile eviction in Killiney, South Dublin.
The recent high-profile eviction in Killiney, South Dublin.
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

AS REPOSSESSIONS OF both houses and belongings gather pace, talk of Ireland’s sheriffs is on the increase. But who are they, what do they do and, more importantly, what can’t they do?

A bit of history

The concept of a sheriff is a pre-Norman one and its continued existence in Ireland is a remnant of English law.

The word itself comes from the words shire and reeve, where reeve is old English for an agent of the king and shire is an administration subdivision.

Originally comprising of a single ‘high sheriff’ with many ‘under-sheriffs’, they were responsible for the enforcement of court judgements.

Changes in the 19th century took the enforcement of these judgements away from the high sheriff and into the hands of the under-sheriffs who then, in turn, handed over the responsibility to bailiffs.

After independence, the Court Officers Act of 1926 led to the high sheriff being abolished and the transfer of under-sheriff functions to county registrars as each under-sheriff post became vacant.

Back from the brink

Ireland’s sheriffs were on the way out, or so it seemed.

Due to the slow transfer of functions, however, years passed and existing under-sheriffs continued to enforce court judgements in parallel with court messengers, who were essentially doing the same job, but under the county registrar.

It wasn’t until 1945 that the office of under-sheriff in Dublin fell vacant. By this time, however, Dublin’s county registrar was stretched to capacity and so the law was later changed again to circumvent the issue.

In came Section 12 of the Court Officers Act 1945 (amended in 1964) where the then Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan altered the 1926 act as follows:

The powers, duties, authorities, rights and obligations of the former under-sheriff of the county borough of Dublin in relation to the execution of warrants issued under section 91 of the Lands Clauses Consolidation Act, 1845, are hereby transferred from the county registrar for the county borough of Dublin to the sheriff of the county borough of Dublin.

So sheriffs were back in business in Dublin and, indeed, Cork.

As time passed, however, a great many more county registrars became overburdened, which led to a failure to collect monies elsewhere.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, the revenue sheriff for Waterford and Wexford, William Ruttledge, explains what happened next:

In the 1980s, the tax collection was found by the commission on taxation to be ‘in a very sorry state.’ Following this, the decision was taken to appoint 12 additional sheriffs, covering all the areas outside of Dublin and Cork. These sheriffs were drawn from the ranks of practising solicitors and are are colloquially known as revenue sheriffs.

So who does what in 2012?

Currently there are 16 sheriffs in Ireland. There are two in Dublin (city and county) and two in Cork (city and county), with a dozen more ‘revenue’ sheriffs throughout the country, whose primary responsibility is to collect taxes on behalf of the collector general.

What they do is written into law, as Ruttledge explains:

Each sheriff is obliged to establish, finance and supply his own office, any by order of the Minister for Justice, made with the consent of the Minister for Finance, the sole responsibility for the execution of certificates under section 485 of the Income Tax Act 1967 was vested in the new revenue sheriffs.

The very same powers that are outlined above are also applicable to the four sheriffs in Dublin and Cork, but they also have additional powers and responsibilities, including the ability, for example, to cover election counts.

Sheriffs tend to make the news, however, when they attempt to obtain the money to repay a debt which has been specified by court order. This can be in the form of payment or, failing that, in the removal and subsequent disposal of assets (a property and/or its contents).

It is this physical removal of either the contents and/or owner from a property that can lead to emotions running high.

For doing this they get a fee, known as ‘poundage’, which is set at 5 per cent of the first €5,500 that they seize and 2.5 per cent of the rest. Expenses are also provided for, as laid down in the Sheriff’s Fees and Expenses Order.

Why don’t they give the people that they’re evicting more time?

While it may appear that the people being evicted by the sheriff are the only ones under time pressure, the sheriffs themselves are working to a deadline.

Published in 1998, The Law Reform Commission’s report on debt collection says:

A sheriff who, without the consent of the judgment creditor, desists from execution on the basis of an undertaking from a judgment debtor to pay his debt by instalments may be liable to a judgment creditor who suffers loss as a result.

Ruttledge adds:

When the sheriff receives the certificate or warrant, he is duty bound to execute it by utilising all the powers available to him.

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These powers often include the use of bailiffs.

When they decide to act depends on the creditor and how soon they want to enforce the court judgement. Currently the creditor can set this in motion up to 12 years after the judgement date.

Once this is enforced, neither the sheriff nor the county registrar has to give advanced notice to the debtor.

In addition, while they should try to seize goods in a peaceful manner whenever possible, they are entitled to make a forced entry as required.

But debtors can get more time, right?

In a word, maybe.

The three nicest words that a debtor can hope to hear are ‘stay of execution’. The best way to get a court to grant one of these is for them to show that it isn’t their fault that they cannot repay the debt.

What can’t be taken?

The Citizens Information website breaks this down as follows:

The law provides that Sheriffs/County Registrars may not seize certain goods but this is effectively meaningless because of the amounts allowed. They may not seize your necessary clothes and bedding and the tools of your trade provided the value of such necessities is not more than £15 (€19).

They are required to list what they take, however, and give this list to the debtor within 24 hours.

What can be taken?

Pretty much everything else. Items that are deemed to have a particularly low resale value may be left.

Read: I stopped the sheriff: Activists prevent eviction of man from Laois home >

Read: Laois homeowner who stopped the sheriff left ‘demoralised’ after eviction >

Watch: VIDEO: Dublin Sheriff’s office occupied in protest at Killiney eviction >

About the author:

Paul Hyland

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