By Tony Collins
BBC One’s “The Sheriffs Are Coming” shows what happens when people and companies take a civil action over money they say are owed, win their case, and don’t get payment.
Last week’s broadcast showed a car dealer, a builder, a jeweller’s shop – and Fujitsu Services – facing high court enforcement officers, who are also known as sheriffs, over unpaid debts of thousands of pounds.
After sheriffs called on a car dealer and asked him to pay a debt of about £6,000 the police were called along with tow-away trucks to carry off cars to be sold at auction to pay the debt.
After three hours of discussions the dealer paid up. In the same programme the sheriffs seized items worth £28,000 from a jewellery shop in Kingston. A couple had won a case over a missold engagement ring.
The appointment of the sheriffs is the final stage of a civil legal action where the debt remains unpaid. Armed with enforcement paperwork from the High Court, the sheriffs have a legal right to seize goods there and then. Whether it’s business premises or private property they have the power to force entry.
Fujitsu staff “shaken”
Which is where Fujistu Services comes in. A unnamed company had been to court and been awarded £149, 481.93 against Fujitsu. As Fujitsu hadn’t paid, the company asked the High Court to collect payment – and enforcement officer Lawrence Grix went with a colleague Kevin McNally to Fujitsu’s Stevenage’s offices to collect the money.
That the sheriffs were dealing with one of world’s biggest IT services companies in Europe, Middle East and Africa, which employs 14,500 people in more than 20 countries, did not faze them.
The sheriffs in a black Ford Transit van pull up at the manned security barrier at Fujitsu Stevenage where the supplier has had a presence for 43 years.
The unexpected visit leaves Fujitsu staff “shaken” according to the broadcast.
At first Fujitsu’s security staff refuse admission to the sheriffs’ van.
Sheriff: “You can’t actually stop me.”
Fujitsu: “I can stop you.”
Sheriff: “You can’t.”
Some time later, and still without access to Fujitsu Services Stevenage, Grix warns Fujitsu that he can call the police. He tells a Fujitsu security guard:
“To be honest I don’t think we have been treated particularly professionally or courteously so far. We have done the utmost to be professional and respectful to your situation here.”
“Ok,” says a guard at the security barrier. It appears that the guard has just come on duty and is unaware that the sheriffs have been trying to gain access for some time.
The sheriff continues: “We not looking to come storming round the place and see your latest technology. That’s not what we are here for. We are here to execute a high court writ and we are asking to be treated in a courteous manner.
“We have the right to enter. If you are not going to allow me to enter I am just going to park my vehicle here (at the entrance barrier) and go in on foot and if anybody tries to stop me I will call the police because it is an arrestable offence to obstruct an enforcement officer in the execution of a writ.
“We don’t want to go down that road. We just want to be treated with some courtesy.”
Eventually the sheriffs gain access – but still don’t get payment and so they seize on paper sufficient Fujitsu goods to cover the debt. The sheriff listed property he could remove later if the debt remained unpaid. The programme’s narrator David Reed told viewers that the sheriffs now owned just about everything at Fujitsu’s head office.
In the end Fujitsu paid the debt in full, without having any of its goods actually seized and it gave a statement to the BBC saying the delay in payment was a genuine oversight on its part and that it took immediate steps which rectified the situation.
At one level it’s a trivial incident, perhaps an amusing one.
Yet it left some Fujitsu security staff and senior managers having to deal with high court enforcement officers who felt the company had been discourteous, who had to warn that they could force entry, who said at one point that they could call police if refused entry, and who ended up listing a large quantity of Fujitsu’s goods for seizure if the debt remained unpaid. Much of the confrontation was filmed by the BBC.
It’s surprising that a company the size of Fujitsu – a company with the legal wherewithal to sue the Department of Health for £700m and carry on negotiations and discussions over the NPfIT-related money for five years – had such an oversight.
How was it that Fujitsu’s internal controls apparently did not prevent a court-endorsed business debt of £149,000 going unpaid until high court sheriffs were called in? Not a good advert for Fujitsu Services.
Sheriffs are coming – BBC’s Fujitsu debt episode in full
BBC: “Sometimes writs are issued against some of the largest companies in the world. Today Lawrence and Kev are enforcing a high court writ against one of the world’s largest IT services companies – Fujitsu.
Sheriff: : “Absolutely no doubt whatsoever they [Fujitsu] have the money to pay this. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what excuses they come up with and how big their company is. They have got a debt and we are here to collect it.”
BBC: “Fujitsu has over £30bn in revenues. Time for Lawrence to get the ball rolling.”
A black Ford Transit van with number plate smudged out pulls up to the manned entrance security barrier at Fujitsu Stevenage.
Sheriff, through an open van window: “We are here to execute a writ against Fuijitsu Services.”
Security guard says “no” – that they cannot come in until they have had the ok from above.
Sheriff: “You can’t stop us coming in. I know what you are saying and I fully respect your position and I am quite happy for you to try and contact somebody who can deal with this but when it comes to a point of law you cannot actually stop us coming in.”
BBC: If necessary sheriffs can force entry to commercial premises but for the time being they decide to park around the corner and wait.
A sign at Fujitsu’s entrance says:
“Visitors – please report to security.
“Restrictions: Plerase declare all electrical equipment
“Please park as instructed
“All vehicles and hand baggage are liable to be searched on departure.”
BBC: “After 15 minutes at the side of the road Lawrence and Kev are finally approached by someone in authority.” A woman in dark clothing (and in the background a man in white shirt and dark trousers) talks to the sheriffs through an open passenger window.
Fujitsu: “Got any details of what this is about? Because I cannot get anybody for you unless we have more details.”
Sheriff: “They’ve have got a judgment for £149, 481.93.”
Fujitsu: “I can’t let you into the building. I am not allowed to let you into the building.”
Sheriff: “Right, unfortunately you can’t actually stop me.”
Fujitsu: “I can stop you.”
Sheriff: “You can’t.”
Fujitsu: “At the moment I can stop you coming into the building.until I get back.”
Sheriff: “You can’t. You can’t, whether you hear back – I am not trying to be awkward.”
Fujitsu: “We are not either.”
Sheriff: “We have been very cooperative at the moment. The security staff have asked us to wait here. I can understand the sensitivity of your business –”
Fujitsu: “My policy is that I don’t let you into this building. I am in control of this building and I am not allowed to let you in.”
Sheriff: “Unfortunately, as a high court officer enforcing a writ, I can force entry to a commercial premises if necessary. We do not need permission to enter your building.”
Fujitsu: “What do you need to enter the building for? Because we don’t know –”
Sheriff: “To seize goods. To seize goods. We are here to seize goods.”
Fujitsu: “Let me go and ring you back.
Fujitsu man in white shirt : “We’ll come back to you in as second …”
BBC: “The shaken Fujitsu employees head off to talk to their superiors leaving Lawrence and Kev to continue waiting outside. After half-an-hour of sitting beside thew road, with no sign of any progress, Lawrence has had enough.”
He pulls up from a side road and stops at Fujitsu’s security barrier. A security guard comes out.
Fujitsu: “You want to come in do you?”
Sheriff: “To be honest I don’t think we have been treated particularly professionally or courteously so far. We have done the utmost to be professional and respectful to your situation here.”
Sheriff: “We are not looking to come storming round the place and see your latest technology. That’s not what we are here for. We are here to execute a high court writ and we are asking to be treated in a courteous manner. We have the right to enter. If you are not going to allow me to enter I am just going to park my vehicle here (at the entrance barrier) and go in on foot and if anybody tries to stop me I will call the police because it is an arrestable offence to obstruct an enforcement officer in the execution of a writ. We don’t want to go down that road. We just want to be treated with some courtesy.”
Fujitsu: “Some of us have just got here. We didn’t know you were coming.”
Sheriff: “I can appreciate that.”
Fujitsu: “Can you give me a couple of minutes?”
BBC: “Finally things seem to be happening. Lawrence is invited inside to discuss matters with someone in authority. It’s progress, but does it mean payment is on its way? … Lawrence is inside for nearly an hour before he emerges and in the chess game that is Lawrence Grix versus Fujitsu Lawrence has captured some major pieces.”
Sheriff: “He was quite insistent they were not going to pay today. So I have basically seized the entire contents of the building or as much as need be to cover the debt. If it doesn’t get paid or resolved in a satisfactory manner we will be back and if necessary we will remove goods.”
BBC: “Lawrence has carried out a walking possession which means he has listed property he can remove at a later date if the debt isn’t paid. Thanks to Lawrence the high court now owns just about everything in Fujitsu’s head office.”
Soon after the visit Fujitsu pays the £149, 481.93.
Fujitsu gives a statement to the BBC saying that the delay in payment was a genuine oversight on its part and it took immediate steps which rectified the situation.