“There are lots of pretenders to the throne in the world of UK High Court enforcement – but today’s blog is all about my mentor, Alastair Black, CBE, DL. I found this picture just recently and all the memories of being involved with the Office of Sheriff came flooding back. Alastair is standing next to me at the end of a softball match between Burchell & Ruston, and Nathan & Co in which the Under Sheriffs slugged it out against the Sheriffs Officers. Also, in the photo are Peter Westwood, Under Sheriff of Surrey, and John Hargrove, who went on to become the Under Sheriff of Greater London after Alastair retired.
Alastair was unrelated to me. I crossed his path by applying for a job as an audio typist straight from secretarial college. With his support I went on to complete my law degree and became a partner in the firm when I qualified as a solicitor in 1989.
Alastair was a proud Scot, and a formidable Sheriff. He was incredibly polite, and very fair, but he ran the business of enforcement so that everyone knew who was in charge. He once had a row on the telephone with Robert Maxwell, the late proprietor of the Mirror Newspaper Group, who tried to pull rank on him when the Mirror Group were visited by Sheriff’s Officers. Alastair was not going to be pushed around by Mr Maxwell even if he did have a helicopter pad on the top of his building in Fetter Lane.
Being a partner in Burchell & Ruston at this particular time in its history was exciting and challenging. I was fortunate to have learnt so much from Alastair in terms of the law of enforcement but also how to deal with situations that arose. The art of it then, as it is now, is to apply a chronology to the execution of the Writ from the starting point to the end and work out what has gone right and what is still to be done. During the period I worked with Alastair (being 1980 – 1994), the law was in flux, as cases arose, and decisions were made on issues such as third-party claims, tools of trade, goods which were necessary, enquirers to be made, orders for private sale, and the conduct of the Sheriff’s Officers. Occasionally a “bad apple” would emerge and steps would be taken to remove that person from the team. Enforcement is after all a very human activity and it relies on an entire team of enforcement professionals to deliver the service expected by judges, by government and by the public.
In my own way I have tried to emulate the person who taught me so much. Alastair was a Christian and had his feet firmly on the ground. His career and his leadership led him along a path of developing the Office of Sheriff, which we know today as High Court enforcement. Not everything was plain sailing, and you realise after 40 years that it is the nature of the job to provide daily solutions to the problems that arise.
Today we are managing a new state of flux as the statutory framework of the Taking Control of Goods Regulations and the primary legislation settles down. It is in my view still early days on how to deliver an enforcement service within this framework. Some of today’s tensions are the same as they were 40 years ago. Claims are made to goods taken into legal control and have to be adjudicated on (I don’t think Alastair would be impressed with CPR Part 85) and reporting on what happens when an enforcement agent attends should in my view be captured on video and retained for the period of provided under the Limitation Act. Pulling a file of evidence together was as difficult in 1984 as it still is today but the video should confirm who said what to whom. I am hoping that the High Court Enforcement Officers Association will offer best practice guidance on this in the months ahead but in the meantime, we are implementing a process for saving this data to protect everyone involved in the enforcement process.
To sum up my feelings from this photograph, it shows four Sheriffs, all trying to do their best for the system of enforcement. That has not changed in our DNA as a company today. Shergroup is the name we chose to replace Burchell & Ruston, but it did not replace the spirit of how we have operated over decades as the oldest Sheriff’s office in England and Wales. We have many success stories under our belt, but we never rest on our laurels. Alastair certainly never rested on his! I hope if you are reading this blog you have a mentor in your life, perhaps for your business skills or your life skills. I was fortunate to have had Alastair in my life – and I strive everyday to meet the high standard he set for us all”.