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The sheriff and seizure of goods

This fact sheet is for information only, and applies to NSW. It is recommended that you get legal advice about your situation.

CASE STUDY

Dinh answered the door early one morning to two uniformed officers. They looked official but they were not police. They explained they were from the Sheriff’s Office of NSW and that they had come about a debt. Dinh started to panic. He had been hiding bills and other mail from his pregnant wife for some time because they had no money to pay and she was getting worried about the bills. Now these uniformed officers were at his door talking about selling his things. Did he have to let them in? What if they took their furniture that was on loan from his wife’s uncle? How would he pay?

WHY CAN THE SHERIFF SEIZE MY GOODS?

If a person or business you owe money to has a court judgment against you, that person or business (then called the “judgment creditor”) has the option of getting an order from the court to seize your goods to pay the debt you owe.

The order is called a Writ of Levy of Property and it is an order telling the Sheriff to take and sell certain property to pay your debt:

THE SHERIFF CANNOT TAKE:

  • Essential household items and furniture (necessary for your household’s domestic use);
  • One vehicle valued under a prescribed amount ($8150 as at October 2021, but for updated amounts see here;
  • Tools of trade up to a prescribed amount ($3800 as at October 2021, but for updated amounts see here;
  • Property that is rented, mortgaged, on hire purchase or belongs entirely to someone else;
  • Any item that would be protected in bankruptcy – see protected property section in our bankruptcy factsheet

PROPERTY THAT THE SHERIFF CAN SEIZE:

  • Any goods you own or have a beneficial interest in;
  • Money, cheques, bonds and securities;
  • Land that you own – but only if the judgment debt is more than $20,000.

The sheriff will not seize an item if they believe the cost of seizure, storage, or sale would likely be more than the sale price.

If the sheriff does seize your goods, your goods are usually be sold in a public auction.

WHAT IF THE ITEMS BELONG TO SOMEONE ELSE?

If the sheriff tries to seize property that you don’t own, you should say that the goods are not your property. If possible, show proof of ownership.

The owner of the property must complete a Notice to sheriff of disputed property (see form 75 at www.ucprforms.justice.nsw.gov.au). The owner must affirm or swear on oath that s/he is the owner of the property (it is a serious criminal offence to lie). Evidence of ownership, for example, receipts should be attached whenever possible.

The owner of the property should lodge the form at the Court as soon as possible after the Writ of Levy of Property was handed to the debtor, and send a copy to the Sheriff’s Office (the location of the Sheriff’s Office is written at the top of the Writ of Levy of Property).

The sheriff will ask the creditor if they agree to the release of the property.  If not, the sheriff may apply to the court to determine ownership, and the owner and other affected people may need to attend.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE SHERIFF COMES TO MY HOME?

  • The Sheriff will give you a copy of the writ, and explain that your goods can be taken and sold at auction to pay the debt
  • You will have a short time after the Sheriff’s first visit to decide what to do (see options below)
  • The Sheriff will generally not take any goods on the first visit. The Sheriff will tell you when s/he will return to take the goods away.
  • The Sheriff can still “seize” property without taking it immediately, by attaching a “Notice of Seizure” to the item/s. If this happens the Sheriff will give you a “Notice to Custodian” listing the seized goods. You must not sell or give these goods away.
  • The Sheriff can only seize goods or accept payment of the debt in full. The sheriff does not have the power to agree to a reduced amount or a repayment arrangement – see below for your options.
  • If you agree you owe the debt, and have plenty of property to cover the debt you can ask the Sheriff to take certain goods to sell first.
  • The costs involved with the writ (court application fees and Sheriff costs) are added onto the amount you owe.
  • If the sheriff intends to seize and sell land, they must give you at least 30 days notice beforehand. Once the 30 days passes, they may take all reasonably necessary steps and use reasonable force to enter the premises and enforce the writ.  Get urgent legal advice by calling 1800 844 949
  • If the sheriff is seizing other goods or items, you need to check whether the writ or other court orders authorise the sheriff to enter the premises.

WARNING:  You must not assault or obstruct the sheriff, as it is a serious criminal offence and they can return with police.  The sheriff’s job is to execute the writ issued by the court, and the sheriff can give you useful information about services you can contact to get advice about what you can do.

WHAT CAN I DO?

  1. HAVE THE JUDGEMENT SET ASIDE

If you dispute the debt, and a default judgment was made in your absence, you may be able to have it set aside. See Fact sheet: Making an application to set aside judgment. You will need to show:

  1. You have a reasonable excuse for not responding to the court action earlier; and
  2. You have a reasonable defence to the claim that you owe the money.

You should seek legal advice before you do this, because you may risk a costs order against you (eg. court may order you pay the other side’s court and legal costs for having to respond to your application if you lose).

  1. APPLY TO THE COURT TO PAY THE DEBT BY INSTALMENTS

If you only want to pay the debt off, you can go to the court and apply to the court to pay the debt by instalments. The first Notice of Motion to pay by instalments will stop the Sheriff seizing your property until the Court has decided whether the application is accepted. For more information, see Fact sheet: Making an application to pay by instalments.

  1. NEGOTIATE WITH THE JUDGMENT CREDITOR

You can negotiate with the judgment creditor to pay the debt by instalments and stop further enforcement action. If the judgment creditor agrees, make sure this is confirmed in writing and the Court is told about the agreement.

  1. PAY THE DEBT IN FULL

You can pay the full amount owing to the Sheriff’s Office or the Court where the judgment was entered and you will be given a receipt.

You can also pay the judgment creditor directly but make sure you get a receipt and inform the court you have paid.

If you are not sure what to do, get legal advice urgently – call us on 1800 844 949

NEED SOME MORE HELP?

See Fact sheet: Getting help for a list of additional resources.

Last updated: November 2021.