Role of debt-collecting sheriffs to be reviewed

Review group led by Department of Justice and Revenue Commissioners to look at whether there is a ‘more efficient and cost effective system of debt collection’

The Department of Justice and the Revenue Commissioners are carrying out a review into the role of the country’s 14 debt-collecting sheriffs who recover unpaid taxes for the State.

A review group, led by former secretary general of the department Noel Waters as chair, will look at whether the role of the sheriffs is “in line with best international practice” or whether there is “a more efficient and cost-effective system of debt collection,” a department spokesman said.

The review is being carried out after the work of the sheriffs largely dried up during Covid-19 as the Revenue suspended debt collections to help businesses through the pandemic.

Debt collections resumed in 2021 and the work of the sheriffs has been increasing every month.


The review group comprises representatives from Revenue, the Courts Service, the departments of justice, housing and finance and an external representative from the Insolvency Service of Ireland. It will “examine the role of sheriffs, as currently constituted, in respect of State work.”

“The review will dissect the nature and volume of work available to sheriffs both now and into the future. It is expected to take between six and nine months,” said the department’s spokesman.

The group has a target date of the third quarter of this year to submit the report.

The Sheriffs’ Association, which represents the 14 sheriffs, declined to comment on the review.

Sheriffs, who are appointed by the Government, finance their own operations as commercial enterprises on a commission based on a percentage of taxes collected for the Revenue.

They can enforce money judgments by the seizure of goods, if necessary.

The four sheriffs in Dublin and Cork, one each for Dublin city and county and one each for Cork city and county, collect civil debts along with tax debts and can enforce repossessions of properties by banks and other creditors.

The nationwide system of Revenue sheriffs was established by the Government in 1986.

Debt warehousing imposed during Covid-19 to help businesses temporarily through the lockdown-related disruptions and closures of the pandemic left the sheriffs in a precarious financial situation as the number of referrals from the Revenue for debt collections plummeted.

Prior to the pandemic, Revenue issued more than 72,000 warrants in 2019, collecting €270 million in unpaid taxes for the State. This fell by more than 90 per cent during the pandemic with only a small amount of pre-2020 debt being collected on referrals from the Revenue.

In 2021, sheriffs received just 707 warrants from the Revenue valued at just €17.7 million, yielding €9.9 million in unpaid taxes. This left the sheriffs relying on their annual retainer of just over €30,000 paid through the Department of Justice to run their offices and pay staff.

More than €2 billion worth of debt remains in the Government’s debt warehousing scheme.

Referrals for debt collection to the sheriffs started to increase after their suspension during the pandemic. Sheriffs were pursuing €194 million worth of tax debt at the end of November.

In October, the debt warehousing scheme was extended by Revenue to May 2024 given the cost-of-living pressures facing businesses with soaring inflation and energy costs.

While the sheriffs operate on work referred by the Revenue, the legal framework underpinning the work of the sheriffs is the responsibility of the Department of Justice.

Sheriffs warned the department last year in correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act that the suspension of tax enforcement during the pandemic threatened their survival and that the closures of their offices would lead to increased tax defaults.

Under law, sheriffs must be a barrister or solicitor who has practised for not less than five years or have acted for not less than five years as managing clerk or principal assistant to an undersheriff or sheriff.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent