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Make sense of … Huissiers de Justice

Huissiers are usually described as ‘bailiffs’ in English but the term fails to get across the wide range of tasks that they do. Here we explain some of the other parts of their job 

The huissier de justice is an ancient job with its roots in Roman times but is still relevant today.

The role involves three main areas: assisting with the running of court hearings; helping businesses; and working with the public.

Some of this work is a monopoly while other parts can also be done by other professionals.

Like notaires, huissiers are both state officials and independent members of one of the ‘regulated professions’. Reforms have brought shake-ups including more freedom to open new practices (previously huissiers had to buy one from a retiring huissier).

From 2017 they will also have the right to work across a larger geographical area (the area for their judicial enforcement work will be that of the appeal court, covering several departments and not just one as now).

Monopoly elements of the job include:

  • Officially informing people of legal decisions: handing over a summons, delivering a divorce judgement, officially giving someone legal notice to pay a debt
  • Putting into action legal decisions: seizing goods or money from an account, evictions
  • Dressed in a black robe, assisting with practical matters during court sittings such as organising the order in which cases are heard

Other jobs may include recovering debts from creditors (including unpaid loans or rent), seizing counterfeit goods or taking an official record of some state of affairs (called un constat) such as a nuisance by a neighbour (noise or eyesores...) or the condition of a flat after a tenant has left.

Huissiers also sometimes hold judicial auctions (as opposed to commercial ones - though that may change) and rules of commercial competitions (eg. newspaper contests with a prize) must be lodged with them.

Like a notaire or avocat, a huissier has the title maître. Unlike these other main legal professions, a huissier still has to have French nationality. The name comes from the old French huis, meaning door, from their job organising court hearings (literally, manning the court’s doors) and the profession’s logo shows a figure holding a staff, because in the middle ages huissiers carried one, and sometimes made use of it if people did not comply with court orders, according to Elisabeth Fitoussi, a huissier in Charenton, Val de Marne (huisser94.com).

Ms Fitoussi said: “Being a huissier is a varied job – this morning I was at a vets’ clinic, then I went to the court, then I was doing an inspection related to water damage.

“It can be emotionally difficult – we have to deal with all kinds of people and sometimes there are situations like evictions that are hard to go through. But we try to do all we can before it comes to that – before such a step there’s been an enormous procedure lasting months if not years. We have an advisory and mediation role too, doing home visits to give advice. In these cases it’s a preventative role.”

In an eviction the huisser will be accompanied by the police, although that is not necessarily the case when they seize goods.

Ms Fitoussi said aggressive reactions to visits are rare. “Usually people treat me well. I’m not going to say it’s never happened that someone wasn’t happy to see me but we have a discussion and generally the situation is freed up.

“It’s not the stereotype of the huissier who turns up, makes notes, takes things and leaves. It doesn’t happen like that – fortunately.”

She said she enjoys the fact she is always out and about and that the job is the legal profession that “has the most contact with people”.

“That’s what attracted me. But in terms of tasks, I prefer, for example, doing constats. Evictions can be tricky.”

When it comes to a constat, the huissier’s word as to what he or she has seen has legal force but they also gather evidence.

“It’s usually accompanied by photos – they are not obligatory but can bolster the case. We regularly do recordings and videos too. We’re there with a dictaphone in one hand and camera in the other – if necessary a video camera; we’re all-terrain. I’ve got different shoes in my car, depending on the situation. I may need boots and a hard hat to visit a building site, I might have to climb scaffolding...”

One of the rarer tasks huissiers do is obtaining proof of adultery. “I’ve done it once in 10 years. It’s by order of a judge. We’re sent to go knock on someone’s door at 6am and take note of who is at the house. If we see a couple, we say ‘a couple were present’. The court order also usually allows us to ask for the identity of the people who are there.”

She added: “Recovering debts for firms is one of our important tasks because it helps them stay afloat.

“Also I would stress that we have very much a preventative role – for example we may do a preventative constat before some work is done to avoid conflicts afterwards. If you are going to remove a supporting wall in a flat, we note the condition before the work in neighbours’ homes above and below, to see the state of their walls.”

After a constat, the client receives a document, called l’éxpédition. The huissier also keeps an original for 25 years.

What does it cost to use a huissier?

Monopoly tasks have fixed tariffs but these are under review. Other work has variable rates. Having a huissier issue a summons to appear in court in a legal dispute is about €50+VAT.

As one of the ‘monopoly’ tasks, this is a reasonable amount compared to the work involved. Ms Fitoussi said – “it needs preparation, sometimes drafting supporting documents, etc...”.

Carrying out an inventory of the state of a property after a rental costs about €150+VAT, while a visit to make a constat in other situations is around €200+VAT.

To find a huissier who speaks English search at europe-eje.eu/annuaire For more about huissiers, see huissier-justice.fr

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