What Is a Bailiff?

The different types of bailiffs and their responsibilities

Male bailiff holding bible for witness in legal trial courtroom
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A bailiff is a legal officer who has the authority or jurisdiction to act as an overseer or manager in some capacity. Let's see where the term bailiff originated from and what responsibilities being a bailiff can entail.

Bailiffs in Medieval England

The term bailiff derives from medieval England. During that time period in England, there were 2 types of bailiff.

A bailiff of the hundred court was appointed by the sheriff. The responsibilities of these bailiffs included assisting judges at assizes, acting as process servers and executors of writs, assembling juries and collecting fines in court. This type of bailiff evolved into the court officials you may already be familiar with in the U.K. and U.S. today.

The second type of bailiff in medieval England was a bailiff of the manor, who was selected by the lord of the manor. These bailiffs would oversee the lands and buildings of the manor, collecting fines and rents and acting as accountants. The bailiff was the lord's representative and was usually an outsider, that is, not from the village.

What About Bailli?

Bailiffs are also known as bailli. This is because the English bailiff's counterpart in medieval France was known as bailli. Bailli had considerably more authority, acting as the principal agents of the king from the 13th to the 15th century. They served as administrators, military organizers, financial agents and court officials.

Over time, the office lost many of its duties and most of its privileges. Eventually, the bailli became little more than a figurehead.

Besides in France, the bailiff position historically existed in the courts of Flanders, Zealand, the Netherlands, and Hainault.

Modern Usage

In modern times, the bailiff is a government position that exists in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, and Malta.

In the United Kingdom, there are many different kinds of bailiffs. There are magistrates' bailiffs, county court bailiffs, water bailiffs, farm bailiffs, Epping Forest bailiffs, high bailiffs and jury bailiffs.

In Canada, bailiffs have a responsibility when it comes to legal process. Meaning, in accordance with court judgments, a bailiff's duties can include the service of legal documents, repossession, eviction and arrest warrants. 

In the United States, the bailiff is not typically an official title, though this depends on each state. Rather, it is a colloquial term used to refer to a court officer. More official titles for this position would be sheriff deputies, marshals, law clerks, corrections officer or constables. 

In the Netherlands, the bailiff is a term used in the title of the president or honorary members of the Knights Hospitaller.

In Malta, the title of bailiff is used to bestow honor on select senior knights.

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Your Citation
Snell, Melissa. "What Is a Bailiff?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/definition-of-bailiff-1788440. Snell, Melissa. (2020, August 27). What Is a Bailiff? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-bailiff-1788440 Snell, Melissa. "What Is a Bailiff?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-bailiff-1788440 (accessed June 6, 2023).