In law, a writ is an order by a government official, usually a judge, directing a party to either act or cease from acting in a particular manner. An attachment is defined as a seizure of property. A writ of attachment is a judicial order directing a law enforcement official to seize certain property to satisfy a judgment.
The origin of this legal procedure can be traced back to medieval Europe, though some legal scholars claim that the precedent for a writ of attachment can be found in Roman law. In Europe, this type of writ was used to seize disputed property in a suit, to reclaim property from a debtor who had defaulted on a loan, or to force a party to appear before a court or government official. Maritime courts used the writ to arrest, or seize ships to prevent a delinquent debtor from absconding with his goods and ship without paying the creditor who had backed the venture.
The most common use of a writ of attachment in the United States, Canada, the UK and many other countries is to protect a creditor. In cases where a judgment has been entered against a defendant, the court will issue an order to a law enforcement officer or agency to seize specific real or personal property to satisfy the debt. In the US, a representative of the plaintiff, or person who brought the case before the court, may go along with the officer in some cases to identify the property to be seized and to answer questions which the defendant may have.
In some instances, a prejudgment writ of attachment may be issued to prevent the disposal of property prior to or during the legal proceedings. This may happen in cases where fraud is alleged. Prejudgment writs are also common practice once a petition for bankruptcy has been filed. The writ serves as a vehicle to hold the property in safety until a verdict can be determined. If a judgment is made against the defendant, then it will be disbursed accordingly; if not, the property can be returned to the party from whom it was seized.
Property that has been seized pursuant to a prejudgment writ of attachment is often held in trust by the law enforcement agency. In these cases, the plaintiff must provide payment in advance to the courts for the associated costs of service and storage. If the writ names the plaintiff as a custodian, then he must verify to the court that he has adequate, secure, pre-paid storage for the property. The plaintiff is not allowed to dispose of the property prior to receiving a judgment awarding him ownership.
In some cases, a writ of attachment can be issued against a person to force his appearance before the court. Called a writ of bodily attachment, this document requires law enforcement to seize the party and bring him before the court at a designated time. Such a procedure is usually employed in cases where a person is found to be in contempt of court by refusing to appear when directed, or due to a failure to pay court-ordered child support.