Sheriffs recover the region’s debts
Mention the word ‘Sheriff’ and it conjures up pictures of cowboys and the Wild West or even Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Yet Sheriffs are very much in existence across East Anglia today, collecting money owed to businesses, helping local authorities to evict squatters and travellers, and seizing property to sell at auction to clear off debts.

Better known now as High Court Enforcement Officers, the largest group in the UK of these ‘modern day sheriffs’ work for Sherforce, part of Shergroup, which has its headquarters at Westwood Park near Colchester.

Dating back to 1780, making it the sixth oldest law firm in the UK, Shergroup is the only enforcement firm in the top 200 law firms. Run by partners Claire Sandbrook and John Hargrove, it employs nearly 100 people in Colchester, London, Leeds and Delhi, and has an annual turnover of £5 million.

All of which means it has the reputation, credibility and expertise which businesses and other organisations like government departments, credit managers, lending institutions and accountants look for when looking for someone to enforce county court judgments or High Court judgments, as Chief Executive Claire Sandbrook explained:

“If you have some really difficult bad debtors, you really need to use someone who knows what they are doing. We’re nothing like the public perception of the bailiffs you see on television, – although we do have greater powers than they have, in particular not needing to inform the debtor in advance that we are coming.”

“However, we will do everything we can to encourage the general public to co-operate with us and employ a range of procedures, from phoning and writing, to visiting and speaking to people in person, before we seize property. Ultimately we can through our whole range of services wind up companies, or bankrupt debtors – it just depends on the circumstances.”

She says there is a great deal of difference between a pensioner who has no money to pay their bills and no possessions to sell and someone who quite blatantly has no intention of paying, and who hides property to ensure it is not seized.

However, unlike other enforcement companies, Shergroup has its own investigations unit called ‘Sherlock’, and has been known to turn up boats, luxury cars, even a railway diesel engine sitting in sidings and a Formula 3 race car!

Claire said: “We’ve had many memorable items, including a £60,000 yacht which was on the verge of being seized when its owner ‘suddenly’ discovered he did have some money to pay maintenance to his wife!”

Until April last year, the role of High Court enforcement came under the jurisdiction of High Sheriffs, who delegated the enforcement of High Court writs (to recoup money) or Writs of Possession (to recoup land and property) to their Under Sheriffs and Sheriff’s Officers.

However, the role of High Sheriff has become solely ceremonial, and the work is now undertaken by High Court Enforcement Officers appointed by the Lord Chancellor under the direction of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. These Officers have taken over the responsibilities of the High Sheriffs and are now personally liable for any action taken in their name.

The biggest change, however, is that claimants have a wider choice of Officers to use across the UK, rather than being forced to use the High Sheriff of the particular county.

“It has opened up a wealth of opportunities for us,” admitted Claire, who believes her team is by far the most experienced around, with 40 enforcement officers based throughout the country. “Although a business needing our help may be based in East Anglia, we can reclaim money owed to them anywhere in the UK, which means they are far less likely to write it off as a bad debt.”

Claire herself is a former Under Sheriff, and was the first ever woman Under Sheriff of a county, in Surrey. She held the role for seven years until 2005, when she handed over the baton to business partner John Hargrove.

While Under Sheriff, part of her role was to support the High Sheriff role which, at the beginning of her tenure was held by musician Richard Stilgoe, before he nominated actress Penelope Keith, better known as ?Margot? in the Good Life.

“They were absolutely wonderful people to work with and very dedicated, raising lots of money for charity in the process, and took the role extremely seriously,” Claire said.

While the Sherforce part of the business enforces county court or high court judgments involving the recovery of money, its sister division Sherbond enforces Writs of Possession, to remove squatters or travellers, or recover unpaid rent. Its clients include local authorities, landlords, land owners and commercial property agents.

“It can be extremely difficult to remove squatters and travellers as it can involve a large number of people. There are quite a few high profile cases at the moment involving travellers, but we try to be fair to both sides and usually, working closely with the local authorities and the police, we are able to encourage the travellers to move on so that we can make the site secure.”

However, as Claire knows from personal experience in dealing with protestors against the M11, Crystal Palace, Newbury Bypass and Manchester Airport developments, there can also be a great deal of danger involved.

“Some protestors will do anything to stop new developments and put themselves in great danger, like encasing parts of their bodies in concrete, burying themselves, even living in trees where any movement could involve them falling and causing serious injury.”

Claire, now 43, has been with the business for 25 years, qualifying as a lawyer in 1989. She has recently set up a range of associated divisions under the Shergroup banner, including Sherwins – its legal centre; Sherwoods BPO – which offers outsourced business processing for clients in both the UK and India – and created the newsletter which carries the ‘Sher’ prefix, as Sherbizz.

The company also runs the National Information Centre for Enforcement, where details of all High Court Writs are input along with over 80,000 insolvency records for one year alone, and the award winning Sheriffs Lodgment Centre in London, where county court judgments are lodged for enforcement using both Sherforce and all the other types of court based enforcement such as Charging Orders or attaching earnings.

She ensures the business keeps moving forward and has introduced the new ‘Sherpa’ system to allow clients to track their cases and receive management information via a password-protected section online, via Shergroup is also working towards achieving quality standard ISO 9001, as part of its commitment to offering a one-stop shop service that is fast, efficient, pro-active and inexpensive.

The business has also recently formed a strategic alliance with Drakes, a company recognised as the leader in the enforcement of unpaid magistrates’ courts fines and local authority debts, including council tax and parking fines.

However, one of their most exciting developments on the cards is the launch of a charity called “Sherbet”, to help families both in the UK and India who need financial assistance, as well as helping to save a tiger in Jaipur.

“Sherbet is our opportunity to give back something to the communities where we operate and where we want to grow our business,” said Claire. “We take corporate social responsibility extremely seriously. By helping the children of families where we have attended to enforce a judgment we have a real insight into what they need to get back on their feet. By helping communities who live near the habitat of the tiger, we can help not only the local communities in Jaipur but also do a little to save a glorious creature from extinction.” and is the sixth oldest law firm in the UK, dating back to 1780.

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