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Claire Sandbrook, as the CEO of Shergroup and a past Chair of the High Court Enforcement Officers Association, reflects on her involvement in TV shows and why they are so important to inform and educate the general public about the consequences of getting into debt.
“I have been a High Court Enforcement Officer since 2004, when I was appointed by Senior Master Robert Turner, as one of the first women to take on this new role. It was a proud moment for me, and I treasure my certificate signed by the Master as the Lord Chancellor’s “Delegated Person”. For today’s enforcement agent community this must all seem like ancient history but to us here at Shergroup it is the bedrock of the development of modern enforcement law and procedure. In fact, perhaps if I hadn’t been so “strident” (a word was used to describe me following my presentation to the Civil Justice Council in 2002), then High Court Enforcement Officers might not have emerged at all from the Government’s determination to reform the Office of High Sheriffs in England and Wales.
Fast forward to 2014 and I was asked by the late Nigel Sussman and TV celebrity Paul Bohill to take on the role of authorised High Court Enforcement Officer for the TV show, “Can’t Pay, We’ll Take It Away”. In fact, I had been contacted by the producer at the start of this TV project to be the team who supplied the agents and operation to Channel 5 but at the time I didn’t like the name and so I said, “no thanks”. So, it was somewhat bizarre that I got involved as the previous HCEO stepped aside due to the somewhat overzealous scrutiny of the High Court Enforcement Officers Association. For three years we supported this TV show and handled the inevitable objections that came out from a new TV genre. We learnt a lot and we learnt that we had to have a working dialogue with the production company who would be providing the content for the TV network.
So fast forward again to 2019 when Shergroup was approached by one TV channel who wanted to do a “Can’t Pay” derivative. We worked on a taster tape, but we saw a problem, and that was a sustainable flow of content at the right level for the TV producers. Writs come from judgments and judgments come from court actions – and the narrower you make that pipeline, then the more difficult it becomes to find the right fit of the story with the TV concept.
In 2020 as the first lockdown was doing its worst to the UK enforcement industry, and we were one of the only enforcement agencies still processing Writs in very constrained conditions, I received a call from Middlechild Productions and the wonderful Andrew Eastel. He explained he was looking for an HCEO who would be willing to work with Middlechild to produce a successor to the “Can’t Pay, We’ll Take it Away” series. He had heard of me, although I was the second or third HCEO he had called to see if I would be prepared to support a TV show with Writs being issued in my name. Having chatted for a few minutes it became clear that a couple of our competitors had shut the door in Andrew’s face, saying that no one would make a TV show now or in the future.
I liked what Andrew had to say and the approach of his team. His vision was to come out with the enforcement agents and film them enforcing the judgments sent to me for enforcement. He wasn’t going to try and constrain the type of story that was filmed, but he wouldn’t be including stories where it showed poverty or eviction. I supported that approach because filming the misfortune of others was done in the “Can’t Pay” TV show and it didn’t work. The saving grace in that project was the genuine compassion of Paul Bohill and Steve Pinner to some of the people they encountered.
We all now know what enforcement looks like as a result of the arrival of TV shows but the term “poverty porn” is not something we need to share. We all know it exists and we all know, particularly post-pandemic that enforcement in homes is miserable where people have really hit hard times. You know it, we know it, and while it has to be done, it’s not something we need to deliver across an audience of thousands.
So Middlechild’ s approach was to show me and the enforcement agents as heroes which not surprisingly I liked. I do feel that we do an incredibly difficult job – enforcing court orders to deliver justice to people who have gone to court to get a judgment.
People can be very self-righteous about this – but not every creditor is a major PLC, and there are many instances where the Court is lied to, or people try to evade payment by hiding goods, or just fibbing about ownership. These situations must be tackled by us with the authority flowing from the Writ, but with the tact and professionalism you would expect from representatives of the High Court.
Andrew and the team at Middlechild understood this and could point to a back catalogue of successful productions dealing with some equally tricky subjects. They had worked with Transport for London on “Fare Dodgers” and the RSPCA on “Dog Rescuers”. They also produced “Cats and Kittens” with Jo Brand, a great TV personality. Talking to Andrew it was clear that other contributors had had the same concerns as me. These concerns revolved around taking our difficult line of work and portraying us in a fair and professional way. It took a few phones calls for me to really come on board with the TV project and think how the heck we were going to deliver that for Middlechild and Channel 5 in the middle of a pandemic.
Drawing on my experience of working in security during the COVID crisis, it was clear that if we were going to be involved, we would have to work on a systematic plan of protocols to wrap around the production process to keep everyone safe and keep the reputation of ourselves and the High Court intact. Andrew worked on these from the TV standpoint, and I think we ended up with a very robust framework which protected all our teams, and contributors, from the risks that we assessed as being in place from the start of the production.
As the protocols were developed, I began talking to enforcement agents who already work in my name, and as a result I know can be trusted to deliver the enforcement of a High Court Writ to the correct standard. Channel 5 were also clear that the crew of agents should move forward from the “Can’t Pay” franchise, in that the agents should reflect a diverse and inclusive set of people. For me, diversity in enforcement is just so important and so I was able to handle this in my network with what I hope was respectful and professional manner. Having been a trailblazing woman enforcement professional (or so people tell me) I wanted women to be on TV. I also wanted enforcement agents to reflect different ethnicities and backgrounds which is something that still needs to be tackled in the enforcement industry.
We met with our first set of enforcement agents and had a relaxed video interview which was sent to Andrew for review. Andrew then worked some telly magic to pair up the agents into a cast which he felt would be a natural successor to the hugely successful pairing of Paul Bohill and Steve Pinner in “Can’t Pay”.
I would like to say thank you to Chris, Mark, Virgil, Alex R, Sherry, KC, Alex J and Gavin for getting on board with the project and working with the Middlechild team to get the job of filming done. This was done in a climate of COVID-testing, masks, hand sanitizer and intense industry scrutiny. The series was also filmed in the cold and snow of January and February 2021 before the vaccine roll-out had even got going.
I also made sure that we had a legal team in place to handle any issues that can come up as a result of filming a TV about High Court enforcement. I had plenty of experience to draw on as “Can’t Pay” attracted a number of hostile complaints which we had to manage through.
So, in Shergroup’s corner I made sure I had strong and robust legal advice from Peter Felton and Chris Royle of Counsel. Peter is now a Consultant to the show and has provided the Shergroup team with his usual decisive advice having reviewed the body cam footage and Middlechild’s own content. This approach has ensured that our process to review each story and any complaint that comes in is thoroughly reviewed in the context of the legal framework created by the Ministry of Justice in 2013/2014.
The result is a TV documentary about High Court enforcement which is truthful, professional, and relevant. It shows the enforcement process both out in the field where agents do a tough job, and it also shows the care and attention to detail which is covered by back-office teams who manage the technicalities of the Writ of Control and the relationship with the Judgment Creditor.
Viewing figures have been strong and over 5,000,000 viewers for the first series confirm that the public are still intrigued by this part of the justice system.
We hope that there will be a second series – and we encourage you to read the links below to keep those viewing figures moving north! Here’s the link to My5 with catch up links.
And to hear more about the background to the stories in the show read our blogs and hear my view on the strategy taken on each enforcement case.
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Last updated | 19 July 2023
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