When the sheriff knocks at your door

Written by Allison Cooper

Sheriffs are representatives of the court and as such, you must follow their instructions or you may be liable for prosecution and further costs.

Answering the door to find the sheriff on the other side is enough to have you shaking in your shoes.Make sure you understand your rights when you are dealing with the sheriff of the court.

A sheriff has the authority to carry out court orders. This may include attaching (taking) some of your possessions so that they can be sold to help pay back money you owe to someone. It is important to know your rights and to understand the sheriff’s responsibilities.

The South Africa Board for Sheriffs chairperson, Charmaine Mabuza, stressed that a sheriff is an impartial and independent official of the court appointed by the Minister of the department of Justice and Correctional Services. Interestingly, sheriffs operate independently from each other; in fact, they are private business people.

The board monitors sheriffs and their deputies to ensure they execute their duties in a humane manner in terms of the Code of Conduct for Sheriffs.

The sheriff or deputy sheriff must serve or execute all documents issued by the courts. These include summonses, notices, warrants and court orders.

“The sheriffs’ profession is a vitally important arm of the administration of justice in South Africa. Without it, justice would grind to a halt,” explained Mabuza.

A sheriff may enter your premises, even when you are not there, providing they have a legal court order to attach some of your possessions.

However, a sheriff must treat you with dignity and respect at all times; and he/she must explain the contents of the court document and what you need to do next.

It is important to know your rights, most notably that a sheriff may not remove necessary items such as food and beds, bedding and clothes. There are also limitations on other things, such as tools of trade you may need to carry out your work, which may not be attached.

Also, be sure to ask for identification so you are not scammed. All sheriffs and deputies must carry a valid identification card issued by the South African Board of Sheriffs (SABFS) and must be able to produce it on request.    

What to do if you have a complaint against a sheriff?

If you have a complaint, or if you are unsure of your rights, contact the SABFS via email: contact@sheriffs.org.za or phone: 021 426 0577.

The SABFS also has a fraud hotline to allow people to bring any unethical business practises to the attention of senior management. The toll-free number is 0800 000 628.