The Sheriff and right of entry

Although the law safeguards the privacy of your home, and in terms of the constitution every person has the right not to be subject to (arbitrary) searches of their person, home or property, many public officials may have the right to enter your house for one reason or another.

Sheriff have wide powers to enforce court orders inside private homes, while police and other officials have rights of entry that vary with the circumstances.

In some instances, officials are required to give notice of their intention to enter a house. In most cases they are expected to call only at reasonable times and, except in emergencies, may not force an entry without first obtaining a warrant from a court. It is an offense (contempt of court) to refuse to allow an official with a warrant to enter your home.

A sheriff of the court is obliged to execute ‘without avoidable delay’ all processes received from the clerk of the court. Property or goods seized by a sheriff of the court are said to have been ‘attached’ by the court.

A sheriff of the court must show the authority – the writ of attachment – to any person who has a reasonable right to demand it. This may be a property owner, as well as the person against whom the writ has been issued.

If a sheriff’s attempts to deliver a warrant or writ are resisted, or if the sheriff anticipates resistance, he or she may call on a member of the South African Police Service for assistance. However, no form of assault by a sheriff is ever permitted or justified by any writ or warrant.

A sheriff who is refused entry to premises, or is denied access to any cupboard or container, is allowed to use force ‘so far as may be necessary . . . to open any door on any premises, or of any piece of furniture’. Force may also be used if no representative of the person against whom the writ has been issued is present. Deliberate evasion of service of a writ, such as by refusing to answer the door to a sheriff, may amount to contempt of court.