HISTORICALLY;

Within the framework imposed by the Pax Romana, judges’ decisions were implemented by officiales. Officiales were divided into different categories according to their function. These categories were called viatores, executorum latium, cohortales, statores. Amongst these categories the most distinguished were known as apparitores and executors.

*The apparitores told the people to assemble at the time of judgments. They announced the litigants in court and generally assured order and silence in court when voices were raised.

*The task entrusted to executors was to take over (to seize) the recalcitrant debtors’ goods or even to escort them to prison.


THE MIDDLE AGES

Then the Pax Romana collapsed under the pressure of waves of numerous barbarian invasions and private justice reemerged.

The kingdom was organised under a collection of hierarchies each one of which had its own judicial organisation.

Justice, an essential characteristic of power, fell under the banner of multiplicity. Laws became personalized according to whether they were royal, seigniorial, ecclesiastical or municipal.

In all these different courts however, from a certain conformity manifested the representation of power. For this agents were needed who had uncontested authority.

Our Roman officiales were transformed into bedeaux, serviens, semonceurs (the semonces were the ancestors of the exploits, which are today the notices served by bailiffs), then sergents and finally huissiers (bailiffs).

The sergents drafted the litigants claims and enforced the decisions rendered by the judges, but they dealt mainly with service of documents in the seigniorial courts.

The French name for bailiff is ‘huissier’ (which originates from “l’huis” meaning door). They were considered reliable and attentive. They were responsible for the service inside the courts and for policing the hearings. Gradually the ‘huissiers’ became officers of the busiest courts while the sergents were relegated to the courts of lesser importance.

Their skills gradually broadened and it became more and more difficult to include them in one sole category.

Different symbols were used to distinguish them :

They could be recognised by their multicoloured striped overgarments and their “baton”.

A Decree dated in 1327 stated that the bailiff should have a good horse of a value of 100 livres, sufficient arms and a baton of a value of 50 livres.

An order of May 1425 stipulated furthermore that bailiffs had to be married, tonsured and continually to wear their striped dress. The bailiff was a symbol of royal authority. However, it was the baton which was the principal characteristic of the authority of the bailiff. It consisted of a small, round ebony baton thirty centimetres long and decorated with copper or ivory.

A Decree of 1568 stated that huissiers had to touch “those with whom they had to serve writ (exploit) of justice”.
It is from this that the word ‘exploit’ (writ) became an ‘acte’ or legal document (the first legislation which prescribed the drafting of writs and serving a copy was the order of Villers-Cotterets).

Furthermore, if we are to believe Rabelais, they wore gold ring on the little finger of the left hand. This ring served to seal the relations of their writs. As soon as the bailiff touched anyone with “his baton” such person had to submit and obey him.

Returning to the style of dress, it developed and varied according to the locality and the courts. It was all about culture and position in the complex hierarchy of those times. The bailiff’s’ attire changed from a cotton dress to black satin, from a simple cap to a velvet hat with gold brade … to the most distinguished of all : the premier bailiff of the Parliament of Paris who held the title of Master, the status equivalent to a knight or nobleman and thus his attire consisted of a red robe with a cap of gold material padded with ermine and a large pearl.

In January 1572, our officers no longer had the duty to wear such dress and the distinctive features were limited to an emblem of three lilies visible on the shoulders and the baton which they always carried. At the same time they saw their duties compartamentalized. For example in Paris the *Court bailiffs (ushers) for the courts

* Horse bailiffs for suburbs and the countryside
* Foot bailiffs for the city centre, 
* Bailiff auctioneers (the auctioneers of today) 
* Bailiff dozens (the judges’ bodyguards), plus four special bailiffs known as “impeccables” attached to the Chatelet who could be used throughout the kingdom

 

MODERN TIMES TO PRESENT DAY

In February 1705, a law was introduced which united the bailiffs into one corps. From then on all the members of this corps took on the same title of bailiff. This allowed them to “practice in any matter throughout the kingdom and to live where they wished”.

This unification was accompanied by a regulation regarding their number. Until the judgment of 22 Termidor year 8 (the Revolutionary Calendar officially in use from 22 September 1793 till the end of 1805), each court had to stipulate how many bailiffs it needed, in this way allowing central government to take back control of this professional category. In this way appeared a draft regulation of the status for bailiffs, reinforced by an imperial decree dated 14 June 1813. This Decree in fact adopted certain older laws for example determining the method of nominating bailiffs and for establishing the knowledge needed as well as the specific skills of the officers.

If today bailiffs no longer carry out their duties in special attire, baton in hand for postponing or arresting debtors, the important nature of their profession and the duties which it imposes on them in the functioning of the system of justice remain ingrained in them. And the words of Saint Appronier patron saint of bailiffs continues to resonate full of respect : “My Lord, my duty is to avoid any complicity with my client’s adversary, I shall never seize the horse or any other thing which aids a debtor to make a living…”