OPINION | Sheriffs rise to the challenge amid economic hardship under lockdown

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A small truck is seen loaded with furniture taken by the Sheriff from inside a home belonging to Robert Huang inside the Woodhill Golf Estate in Pretoria. (Alex Mitchley, News24)
A small truck is seen loaded with furniture taken by the Sheriff from inside a home belonging to Robert Huang inside the Woodhill Golf Estate in Pretoria. (Alex Mitchley, News24)

The Covid-19 pandemic has put sheriffs in a difficult position as they land up in the crosshairs of communities and those who have fallen victim to the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, writes Charmaine Mabuza.

"I shot the sheriff, but I didn't shoot no deputy", are the lyrics of the chorus to one of Bob Marley's greatest hits.

In pop culture, sheriffs are cast as no-nonsense law enforcers with big shiny stars and quick gun draws.

In South Africa, the reality is less notorious or glamourous.

There are around 1 000 sheriffs and deputy sheriffs countrywide, working to give life to the decisions of the courts. They are the public face of the civil justice system, responsible for serving all court documents including summonses, notices, warrants and execution of judgments and orders. Their work is hard, thankless and often dangerous.

The widely publicised evictions of residents from informal settlements and occupied land in the Western Cape recently – and the protests they prompted – highlight this.

In the crosshairs

Legal evictions are usually executed with a court order, served by sheriffs or deputy sheriffs of the court.

This role often places them in the crosshairs of communities who do not fully understand their powers and responsibilities.

During the lockdown, sheriffs' offices were inundated daily with calls from landlords and attorneys seeking the eviction of tenants for rent non-payment. But in most cases involving residential property and land, sheriffs have to decline any action – because it is against the law.

Regulation 53 (1) under Level 2 of the lockdown, which the government issued in June, prohibits evictions from residential property and land – unless the court has determined the urgency of the matter and approved the eviction under Level 2.

Despite the revenue losses that this rule has led to for the profession, sheriffs' offices are duty-bound to adhere to it.

And it is why a Western Cape High Court judgment recently ordered the City of Cape Town to halt its eviction of people occupying land and the demolition of their shacks.

Another area of sheriffs' work that draws attention is the attachment of personal assets, following court judgments against debtors.

The pandemic and lockdown restrictions have led to spiralling job losses and financial hardship. As the economic crisis deepens, we are seeing increasing numbers of people defaulting on loans and facing the loss of asset, such as homes, cars and furniture.

Some may be pressured by lending institutions and private collection agents to release their property without a proper court process. But it's important that they are mindful of their rights in such situations.

Court order

The South African Board for Sheriffs (SABFS) advises that people always ask to see a court order before handing over their property, as this guarantees them legal recourse after the fact.

If you are in doubt about the legitimacy the action, contact your local sheriff or the SABFS. Insisting that your creditors follow a legal process, as sheriffs always do, is crucial to ensure that you are able to challenge any process of property repossession or attachment at a later stage.

This is especially significant in a time when creditors increasingly opt to avoid courts to recoup their debts.

There are many negative public misconceptions around sheriffs' authority and their commitments to the communities they serve.

Bearers of bad news are known to be treated badly sometimes, but for consumers in such a situation, sheriffs represents a measure of protection.

In every crisis, there are always opportunists who are out to exploit people in distress.

So, beware of fraudsters claiming to be sheriffs, eager to cart away your belongings. Always ask to see an official appointment card from the SA Board for Sheriffs and genuine legal documents. No sheriff or deputy sheriff can carry out any action without them.

In the past, sheriffs have taken criticism for their part in the auctioning of repossessed homes, and the way that process worked.

Amendments to High Court and Magistrate's Court rules, effected in 2017, means that sheriffs have to comply with strict rules that are weighed in favour of homeowners.

Before 2017, Sheriffs had no discretion or decision-making powers in respect of the price obtained at an auction, how the auction is conducted or who buys.

They were forced to authorise the sale of a property to the highest bidder, regardless of the value of that bid.  Many houses were sold below their market value.

Socio-economic effects

Now, a judge or magistrate now can set a reserve price, which has to be met in order for the sale to be completed – along with various other new processes that are favourable to homeowners, making the sheriff's sale of real estate more professional and safer.

Our civil courts have exercised due care in presiding over the servicing of debt through repossession and property sales. During this unprecedented crisis, we can expect to see the courts show even more consideration. 

As with many other professions, sheriffs are having to deal with the pandemic's socio-economic effects.

There are few things as distressing as losing income and the consequential loss of valuable property.

It falls on sheriffs to rise to the challenge, serving the interests of all involved in the process – creditors, debtors, the courts and other stakeholders. And to do so with professional integrity, fairness, commitment to the law and concern for all.

These officers of the court are called on to do this challenging job while facing additional challenges the coronavirus crisis brings – the threat of infection, reduced budgets, retrenchments and other side effects of the pandemic. 

That's something we need to bear in mind the next time a sheriff – wearing a face mask greeting politely - comes knocking at your door during the lockdown.

- Charmaine Mabuza is the chairperson of the South African Board for Sheriffs, a statutory body that monitors the service of sheriffs and deputy sheriffs, ensuring it is carried out in a humane manner.

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