Threatened by bailiff action? What to do
BEING pursued by a bailiff can be one of the most frightening aspects of a problem with debt.
Knowing your rights can help to ease the stress of the situation. That's where this guide comes in.
Bear in mind that the information here only applies to England and Wales. In Scotland, the role of the bailiff is taken by the sheriff officer, who works to different rules.
Dealing with bailiffs
A bailiff can be used to recover certain types of debt, including:
- council tax, or business rates and rent
- income tax, national insurance and VAT
- parking penalties
- county court judgements (CCJs)
- high court judgements
- magistrates' court fines and compensation orders
- child support, and
- maintenance payments
All bailiffs who visit a residential property must be licensed. This means they must have a "enforcement agent certificate", which allows them to act as a bailiff.
They must provide at least seven days' notice of their intention to visit, and when they do visit they should provide a form of identity and some form of enforcement notice.
This may be in the form of a court order, warrant of control or writ of control. Only the bailiff named in the authorising document is allowed to use it - so do check their identity.
They are also not allowed to visit outside the hours of 6am to 9pm, or to enter any property when the only person present is under 16 or considered "vulnerable".
Bailiffs have one ultimate goal - to recover as much money as they can - and they often use tactics (see below) to frighten and intimidate people. We've certainly encountered offensive bailiffs at Debt Support Trust.
However, the majority comply with industry guidelines and the law, which makes it well worth knowing your rights.
What can they take?
- Don't sign anything
- Don't let the bailiffs in
- Negotiate over the phone
- Keep vehicles away from the house or in a locked garage
- Bailiffs cannot send people to prison for not paying their debts, but be prepared to make regular payments
Bailiffs have rules governing them when recovering monies owed to them, or their client.
Bailiffs are allowed to sell some of a person's possessions to repay the debt. These personal items include "luxury items" such as cars, TVs and games consoles. But bailiffs are not allowed to sell essential items, such as tools necessary for a person's work, clothes, sofas, most white goods, beds and the like.
The bailiff is also not allowed to sell an item which does not belong to the person they're dealing with, like a partner's computer - although it's up to the individual to prove the item is not theirs and therefore cannot be taken.
Also, before a bailiff can sell any item, they must enter the premises to value the items.
Negotiating the debt
Usually a bailiff becomes involved in a debt because a person has not paid their debt. More often than not, that's because they can't afford to.
But instead of seeking help or notifying creditors of a problem, the person with the debt has ignored it until it's escalated to this point.
So anyone facing a bailiff will have to negotiate with them to explain the situation, and discuss how the debt will be repaid.
Most bailiffs will accept a payment plan, where the debtor agrees to pay a set amount each week or month.
It's important that the payment plan is a fair reflection on the money available - that is, left over after essential spending each week or month.
For those who are unemployed or struggling financially, for example, most bailiffs will accept £1 per week until the financial situation improves.
One of the problems we often find is that people who owe several creditors have a low disposable income. If this is the case, it's often best to speak to a debt advice charity for help.
It's always best to negotiate with a bailiff over the phone, and insist on getting receipts for all payments in order to keep track of what money is still owed.
If negotiating over the phone isn't possible, there's nothing to stop someone from negotiating through the letterbox or on the doorstep, making payments and getting receipts and so on without letting the bailiff into the house.
Must I allow the bailiffs entry?
Under changes to the law that came into force in April 2014, bailiffs are no longer allowed to enter a property by anything other than the door.
No one has to allow a bailiff access to their property, and bailiffs aren't allowed to force their way in - unless the money owed is for unpaid criminal fines, Income Tax or Stamp Duty - but even then, that's only allowed as a last resort.
In these cases, they're allowed to use "reasonable force" - which means breaking a door's lock or hinges, forcing a gate open, or cutting through a padlock or chain. But they're not allowed to do anything to windows, climb over fences or walls, or push anyone out of the way.
But in all cases, they are allowed to look for other ways to get in, peacefully - so if the house has a back door which is unlocked, they can enter that way. The same goes for gaining entry through garages or outbuildings with connecting doors.
So, if a bailiff has never been inside a house, it would be illegal for them to break the door to enter - but if they find an unlocked garage with an unlocked connecting door into the house, and no one standing in their way, they can come in that way.
As mentioned above, bailiffs are also not allowed to enter if the only person present is only a child (under 16) or a vulnerable person.
The police will never help a bailiff break into a property.
If a bailiff is refused entry, they are allowed to take vehicles and other belongings left outside.
Anyone who thinks this may be an issue should keep their vehicles away from their property, or lock belongings in a garage.
Watch out for these tactics!
There are different tactics bailiffs use to get their money back.
A bailiff may telephone and ask if they can pop round for a "chat": tell them no and try to negotiate on the phone instead.
Once outside, some bailiffs will ask to use the phone or toilet, but the same rules apply: don't let them in.
It's advisable to remain polite but refuse entry.
As has been mentioned several times, the best option when dealing with a bailiff is to speak to them on the phone, and to offer to pay what you can afford. Ensure that all valuables are kept safe.
What if I have already allowed them access to my property?
Once a bailiff has been let into a house, it becomes a different matter.
Should they return, they do have the right to enter again.
They may be returning to remove items of value they found on their first visit but couldn't take for some reason, or because they suspect more goods have been brought into the property, or because an agreed repayment plan has been broken.
It's vital, therefore, that anyone who can't pay the debt should contact the bailiffs before they return and attempt to negotiate a new form of payment via instalments.
Show them income and expenditure, and express willingness to pay as much as possible towards the debt before they have to visit again.
If a bailiff has let a person keep any items of value as part of a repayment agreement - often called a "controlled goods agreement" - and that person does not keep up their payments, the bailiff is entitled to return, use reasonable force to gain entry and remove those goods.
In this case it's also likely the bailiff will refuse to negotiate or accept a new payment plan.
Bailiffs are allowed to charge a fee for their services, which includes visiting your premises and selling your possessions. It is always worth asking for an itemised list of the costs they have incurred.
Under law, the bailiffs can only add set charges to the debt, and while those being visited are required to pay bailiff charges, if they seem too high people have the right to complain.
Each stage of the enforcement action has a set fee, which can only be applied once. There are three stages:
- compliance - writing to notify of the debt and enforcement action, and requesting payment - £75;
- enforcement - covers visiting premises to value and take control of goods - £235 in total, no matter how many visits;
- sale - removing and selling belongings identified in the previous stage - £110
In addition to these fixed fees, people who owe more than £1,500 must pay a percentage of their debt, usually 7.5%, as an additional fee every time a bailiff visits, unless they are from the family or county court.
High fees: what to do
In most instances the costs can be reduced if they are excessive. If they seem too high, complain first to the company that the bailiff works for.
If this doesn't work, approach the organisation where the debt originated, such as the council, bank or credit agency, as they could help.
Finally, you could complain to the bailiff's trade association, the Civil Enforcement Association, to review the fees.
Fees are not the only thing it's possible to complain about. If a bailiff is or has been using threatening or harassing behaviour, taking items that belong to other people, or has illegally entered a home, a complaint should also be filed.
Again start with the bailiff's company, then the creditor. If the bailiff action was brought by a court, complain next to them.
Whether there are complaints or not, it can be well worth seeking professional debt advice from a debt charity if an encounter with a bailiff looks likely, or whether action has already begun.
For face to face advice, speak to the Citizens Advice Bureau.
Alternatively, there are a range of debt advice charities in the UK providing advice over the telephone and online. There's a selection of in the "free advice" box above.