AskDefine | Define bailiff

Dictionary Definition

bailiff n : an officer of the court who is employed to execute writs and processes and make arrests etc.

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. legal officer to whom some degree of authority, care or jurisdiction is committed
  2. the steward or overseer of an estate

Related terms


Extensive Definition

Bailiff (from Late Latin bajulivus, adjectival form of bajulus) is a governor or custodian (cf. bail); a legal officer to whom some degree of authority, care or jurisdiction is committed. Bailiffs are of various kinds and their offices and duties vary greatly.

Medieval bailiffs

British Isles

The term was first applied in England to the king's officers generally, such as sheriffs, mayors, etc., and more particularly to the chief officer of a hundred. The county within which the sheriff exercises his jurisdiction is still called his bailiwick, while the term bailiff is retained as a title by the chief magistrates of various towns and the keepers of Royal castles, as the High Bailiff of Westminster, the Bailiff of Dover Castle, etc. Under the manorial system a bailiff was in charge of superintending the cultivation of the manor (see Walter of Henley).

Holland and Flanders

The rank bailiff was used in Flanders, Holland, Henegouwen, Zeeland and in North of France. The bailiff was a civil servant who represented the ruler in town and country. In Flanders the Count usually appointed the bailiff and in France the King. The position originates from France when King Philip II Augustus installed the first bailiff. In the northern parts of continental Europe this position was known as "Baljuw" a direct derivative from the French word "Bailli" but also words were used as "drost", "drossaard" (Brabant), "amman" (Brussels), "meier" (Leuven, Asse), "schout" (Antwerp, 's-Hertogenbosch, Turnhout), "amtmann" and "ammann" (Germany, Switzerland, Austria).

France ancien régime

Under the ancien régime in France, the baliy was the king's representative in the bailliage (bailiwick), charged with the application of justice and control of the administration. In southern France, the term generally used was sénéchal who held office in the sénéchaussée.
The administrative network of baillages was established in the 13th century over the king's land (the domaine royal), notably by Philippe Auguste. They were based on the earlier medieval fiscal and tax divisions (the "baillie") which had been used by earlier sovereign princes (such as the Duke of Normandy). The creation of the royal bailliages reduced prior existing judicial courts to a subaltern rank; these lower courts were called:
  • prévôtés royales supervised by a prévôt appointed and paid by the bailli
  • or (as was the case in Normandy) vicomtés supervised by a vicomte (the position could be held by non-nobles)
  • or (in parts of northern France) châtellenies supervised by a châtelain (the position could be held by non-nobles)
  • or, in the south, vigueries or baylies supervised by a viguier or a bayle.
The court or tribunal of the bailliage was presided by a lieutenant général du bailli. Tribunals in bailliages and sénéchaussées were the first court of appeal for lower courts, but the court of first instance for affairs involving the nobility. To appeal their decisions, one turned to the regional parlements. In an effort to reduce the case load in the parlements, certain bailliages were given extended powers by Henri II of France: these were called présidiaux. Bailliages and présidiaux were also the first court for certain crimes (these cases had formerly been under the supervision of the local seigneurs): sacrilege, lèse-majesté, kidnapping, rape, heresy, alteration of money, sedition, insurrections, and the illegal carrying of arms.
By the late 16th century, the role of the "bailli" had become merely honorary, and judicial power was invested solely in the lieutenant général of the bailliage. The administrative and financial role of the bailliages and sénéchaussées declined in the early modern period (superseded by the king's royal tax collectors and regional gouverneurs, and later by the intendants), and by the end of the 18th century, the bailliages, which numbered into the hundreds, served only a judicial function.
In French, a court bailiff is called a "huissier de justice".


Modern bailiffs


Most of the functions associated with the older Dutch-language terms translated as 'bailiff' in English, are no longer found in one officer. The modern terms 'huissier de justice' (in French) or 'gerechtsdeurwaarder' (in Dutch) however, are usually translated into English as 'bailiff'. This is a sworn officer who may legally deliver exploits (process serving), see to the execution of court orders such as the confiscation of goods, or be an official legal witness. A similar officer is typical in many countries with a non-Anglo Saxon law system that is based on the Napoleonic Code In Belgium, the bailiff can be appointed by a confiscating court to exercise the judicial mandate of 'schuldbemiddelaar' (in Dutch) or 'médiateur de dettes' (in French), a debt negotiator, in a procedure called 'collectieve schuldenregeling' (CSR) or 'médiation collective de dettes', a collectively negotiated settlement of debts, which is comparable with the regulations by the 'Wet Schuldsanering Natuurlijke Personen' (WSNP) in the Netherlands.
The official judicial tasks are often supplemented by tasks as independent entrepreneurs, for instance for non-judicial debt collecting, specific judicial advice or writing general conditions of sale, judicial assistance at lower courts (canton level), etc.

British Isles

England & Wales

seealso Water bailiff In England & Wales, the bailiff of a franchise or liberty is the officer who executes writs and processes, and impanels juries within the franchise. He is appointed by the lord of such franchise (who, in the Sheriffs Act 1887, § 34, is referred to as the bailiff of the franchise).
The bailiff of a sheriff is an under-officer employed by a sheriff within a county for the purpose of executing writs, processes, distraints and arrests. As a sheriff is liable for the acts of his officers acting under his warrant, his bailiffs are annually bound to him in an obligation with sureties for the faithful discharge of their office, and thence are called bound bailiffs. They are also often called 'bum-bailiffs', or, shortly, 'bums'. The origin of this word is uncertain; the New English Dictionary suggests that it is in allusion to the mode of catching the offender. Special bailiffs are officers appointed by the sheriff at the request of a plaintiff for the purpose of executing a particular process. The appointment of a special bailiff relieves the sheriff from all responsibility until the party is arrested and delivered into the sheriff's actual custody.
By the County Courts Act 1888, it is provided that there shall be one or more high bailiffs, appointed by the judge and removable by the Lord Chancellor; and every person discharging the duties of high bailiff is empowered to appoint a sufficient number of able and fit persons as bailiffs to assist him, whom he can dismiss at his pleasure. The duty of the high bailiff is to serve all summonses and orders, and execute all the warrants, precepts and writs issued out of the court. The high bailiff is responsible for all the acts and defaults of himself, and of the bailiffs appointed to assist him, in the same way as a sheriff of a county is responsible for the acts and defaults of himself and his officers. By the same act (§49) bailiffs are answerable for any connivance, omission or neglect to levy any such execution. No action can be brought against a bailiff acting under order of the court without six days' notice (§52). Any warrant to a bailiff to give possession of a tenement justifies him in entering upon the premises named in the warrant, and giving possession, provided the entry be made between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. (§ 142). The Law of Distress Amendment Act 1888 enacts that no person may act as a bailiff to levy any distress for rent, unless he is authorized by a County Court judge to act as a bailiff.
Bailiffs will be replaced by enforcement agents when the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, s.63 comes into force.
Water bailiffs also exist in England and Wales, to police bodies of water and prevent illegal fishing.


seealso Water bailiff The Scottish form of this post is the bailie. Bailies served as burgh magistrates in the system of local government in Scotland before 1975 when the system of burghs and counties was replaced by a two-tier system of regional councils and district councils. The two-tier system was later replaced by a system of unitary authorities.
Under the new arrangements the bailies were abolished and replaced by Justices of the Peace serving in the District Courts of Scotland, these posts no longer holding any authority within the local authority as an administrative body. However the term bailie is still used as an honorary title by Glasgow City Council for a number of senior councillors who can deputise for the Lord Provost.
The Scottish equivalent of a sheriff's bailiff or high bailiff is the sheriff officer (for the Sheriff Court) or the messenger-at-arms (for the Court of Session). These positions have been abolished by §60 of the Bankruptcy and Diligence etc. (Scotland) Act 2007, and replaced with the office of Judicial Officer under §57(1) of that enactment.
In Scotland, the office of water bailiff does exist, with power to enforce legislation relating to the illegal collection of salmon and trout.

Channel Islands

See also Bailiff (Channel Islands)
In the Channel Islands the bailiff is the first civil officer in each of the two bailiwicks. He is appointed by the Crown, and holds office until retirement. He presides as a judge in the Royal Court, and takes the opinions of the jurats; he also presides over the States, and represents the Crown on civic occasions. The bailiff in each island must, in order to fulfill his judicial role, be a qualified lawyer.

Isle of Man

The High Bailiff is the head stipendiary magistrate in the Isle of Man.


In parts of Canada, bailiffs are responsible for the service of legal process. In some jurisdictions, duties of the bailiff include the service of legal documents, repossession and evictions in accordance with court judgments, application of wheel clamps and the execution of arrest warrants. Some jurisdictions also require that applicants receive special training and have a degree in Paralegal Technology to become a bailiff.


In Ontario, provincial bailiffs provide primary transportation of prisoners between correctional facilities such as jails and prisons. Under the Ministry of Correctional Services Act (Ontario), while transporting prisoners, bailiffs have the powers of police constables. When necessary, Provincial correctional officers will act as bailiffs for short and long term assignments and full-time bailiffs are typically recruited from the correctional officer ranks. Provincial bailiffs are armed with expandable batons and pepper spray and operate under the jurisdiction of the provincial Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Duties normally associated with bailiffs in other jurisdictions, such as evictions, seizures, and other civil matters, are performed by sheriffs under the office of the Attorney General of Ontario.

The Netherlands

In these days the rank "Bailiff" is not in used in Holland, but there is one exception. The term is used for the position of president and some honorary Bailiffs of the Dutch branch of the Knights Hospitaller.

United States

While many in the United States use the word bailiff colloquially to refer to an officer providing court security, few such officers are actually bailiffs. More often, these officers are called sheriff's deputies, marshals, or court officers. The terminology varies among (and sometimes within) the several states.
Whatever the name used, the agency providing court security is often charged with serving legal process and seizing and selling property (e.g., replevin or foreclosure). In some cases, the duties are separated between agencies in a given jurisdiction. For instance, a court officer may provide courtroom security in a jurisdiction where a sheriff handles service of process and seizures.

Other uses of the word

As most people's contact with bailiffs is when a bailiff comes to take property to enforce debt, in former times in The Fens of eastern England, the term "Bailiff of Bedford" was often used as slang for destructive floods of the River Great Ouse.


bailiff in German: Vogt
bailiff in Spanish: Bailío
bailiff in French: Huissier de justice
bailiff in Italian: Balivo
bailiff in Dutch: Baljuw
bailiff in Polish: Komornik (prawo)
bailiff in Finnish: Vouti
bailiff in Walloon: Bayî

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

G-man, MC, MP, attorney, beadle, beagle, bound bailiff, butler, captain, catchpole, chief of police, commissioner, constable, croupier, curator, custodian, deputy, deputy sheriff, detective, emcee, factor, fed, federal, flic, gendarme, government man, guardian, housekeeper, inspector, landreeve, librarian, lictor, lieutenant, mace-bearer, majordomo, marshal, master of ceremonies, mounted policeman, narc, officer, patrolman, peace officer, police captain, police commissioner, police constable, police inspector, police matron, police officer, police sergeant, policeman, policewoman, portreeve, proctor, procurator, reeve, roundsman, seneschal, sergeant, sergeant at arms, sheriff, steward, superintendent, tipstaff, tipstaves, trooper
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