It has been a decade since statistics were available into the use of diligence in Scotland. The new figures show a country riven with increased aggression in debt recovery, and a Sheriff Officer profession largely sustained by the enforcement actions of local authorities. Alan McIntosh explains. 

New Scottish Government figures have provided the first real look at how the use of diligence in Scotland has evolved over the last ten years with the abolition of poinding and warrant sales and the implementation of the Bankruptcy and Diligence Etc (Scotland) Act 2007.

What is revealed is that the use of diligence has increased by 134% in the last ten years and that local authorities are now responsible for 84% of all the 387,945 diligences executed in 2011/12. It is also clear Councils are now spending millions more in debt recovery than previously, with 76% of the total 338,701 charge for payments being served being done so for local authority summary warrants (prior to 2008 there was no requirement to serve a charge to execute diligence using a summary warrant.)

 

Non earnings arrestments have also increased with local authorities now executing more than three times the number they executed in 2002, which indicates increased aggressiveness by councils, but also possibly that more arrestments are failing and being repeated because of changes introduced by the 2007 Act, which introduced protection for minimum amounts in bank accounts.

Earning arrestment figures have also doubled, indicating changes in recovery strategy for councils and other non summary warrant lenders, but also possibly the success of the new s70A of the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987, which introduced a new requirement on employers to inform creditors of employee’s new employment details when employment with them has ceased.

Not all diligences have, however, proved popular. The replacement to poinding and warrants sales only saw 2,758 attachments and 51 exceptional attachments being executed. Contrast that with the number of poindings in 1997 (18,980) and its clear to see the corporeal property of debtors is now safer than ever.

Money attachments have also not proved a hit with only 502 being executed nationally.

Some diligences are more common amongst certain creditors than others. HMRC, for example, most commonly use non earnings arrestments (6,437) rather than earning arrestments (467). They also are more likely to use money attachments than local authorities and other non summary warrant lenders.

Local authorities most commonly use non earnings arrestments (219,905) than earning arrestments (116,703) and rarely appear to use any other type of diligence.

Non summary warrant creditors in contrast are more likely to use earning arrestments (17,127) than non earnings arrestments (7,643) and are also the highest user of attachments (1,755), possibly indicating more intelligence based recovery as they are more likely to have information on debtors employment, unlike statutory creditors like local authorities. In one sheriffdom there were more earning arrestments executed for summary warrant debts than non earnings arrestments, but that was the exception. 

A number of conclusions can be drawn from these statistics.

First, recent criticism that Scotland has become overly debtor friendly is not true, but clearly local authorities are struggling to recover local taxes.

Second, it is also obvious that although many of these problems may disappear should Scotland introduce a Scottish Income Tax, collected at source this will have a dramatic effect on Scotland’s legal debt enforcement system as sheriff officer firms are clearly over dependent on local authority revenue.

Third, if the whole purpose of the review carried out by the fist Scottish Executive into debt recovery which culminated with the Striking the Balance Report was to create a less coercive system then it’s failed. Even allowing for changes in tactics, no one could have imagined a 134% increase in the use of diligence. The recent growth in schemes like the Debt Arrangement Scheme, which now see over 3,000 people applying per year, is still not enough, when over 338,701 Charge for Payments are being served, 134,297 earning arrestments are being executed and 233,985 non earnings arrestments are being applied for. It is clear the collaborative approach that was hoped for is still not being achieved and legal debt recovery is still, in relation to local authorities at least, based on a hit and miss, threat based approach rather than one based on intelligence and working with debtors.

It also doesn’t help that the Scottish Government has still not implement S74D of the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987, which requires lenders within 48 hours of executing a non earnings arrestment to serve on the debtor a Debt Advice and Information Package advising them where and how to seek advice on how to deal with their debts.

There is no easy answer to the current problems, but encouraging more people to seek advice and agreements with their creditors should be a priority for the Scottish Government; also a further review of local authority enforcement powers under the summary warrant procedure is now long overdue. It should be borne in mind that widespread abuse of these powers and the diligence of poinding and warrant sales is what eventually discredited that diligence and led to its abolition: we can avoid repeats with other diligences by acting now.