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Scots look for less harsh ways to recover goods or money from debtors

The Scots are hard on their debtors. Present debt recovery laws in Scotland allow sheriffs' officers to force their way into debtors' homes and conduct sales of household goods to recover money owed.

There has been a growing public disquiet over this seizure of household goods since sheriffs' officers broke into a former lord provost's (major's) home in Edinburgh in 1972 to sell furnishings at bankruptcy proceedings. The court order had tragic consequences for the former civic leader and his wife, and the episode shocked many people into demands for the reform of the warrant sales law.

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While most people do not seem to object to existing methods of debt recovery -- including the appropriation of parts of income -- there appears to be increasing public opposition to the seizure of goods and process of advertising household items for sale at the homes of debtors. Advertising the names and addresses of many debtors for public auctions of furniture is seen by a large section of the population as an unnecessary humiliation for bankrupt individuals.

Yet people most closely interested in debt-recovery procedures are divided about the merits of warrant sales. One lawyer has said that most sheriffs' officers try to behave in a reasonable manner when entering debtors' homes, and the legal spokesman stressed in a television interview that there had to be a strong final deterrent for people who wanted to evade paying accounts.

But a printing trade union has described warrant sales as "barbaric" and has instructed its members to refuse to set newspaper-type advertising of the compulsory auctions. Some newspaper proprietors, while not directly commenting on the ethics of warrant sales, have told printing unions that advertisements are completely subject to editorial judgment, and managements appear to be taking a strong stand against what they see as trade union interference in press freedom.

The government has so far given little indication that it is willing to amend the law on warrant sales, but a private MP's bill for reform might find a substantial measure of support at Westminister. It is believed that there were 6,200 warrants of sale in Scotland in 1978 (out of 80,000 debt decrees), but only 300 of these became compulsory auctions in private homes.

The distressing nature of these auctions and widespread discussions about them in the news media have increased the pressure for changes in the law.

A recent report by the Law Commission of Scotland, which has been conducting a long investigation into the effects of warrant sales in debtors' houses, has recommended a more humane procedure. The commission wants anonymity for debtors and sales to be conducted in public auction rooms, a procedure that would also ensure higher prices for goods being sold.

The legal body also wants to see sheriffs refusing a warrant of sale where it would be "harsh and unconscionable." It has been further suggested by the Scots Law Commission that the arrestment (garnishing) of wages should be spread over a longer period to enable debtors a better opportunity to finally clear up overdue accounts.

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But the Law Commission of Scotland has insisted that the ultimate sanction of warrant sales, though reformed and made less humiliating for debtors, should remain as a warning to individuals careless about paying bills. Significantly, however, the commission accepts that most debtors appear unable to repay accounts and that uncooper ative individuals are in the minority.

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