Threatened by bailiff action? What to do

Last updated: 1 September 2020   By Dr Lucy Brown, Editor

Bailiffs have the legal right to demand payment for debts, but there are rules about what they can do and what they're allowed to take.

Bailiffs are legally appointed to pursue debts, making them different from debt collection agencies who may try to recover money privately.

Different types of debt are handled by different bailiffs, but many of the processes are the same, and debtors have the right to complain about their treatment.

If at all possible, debtors should clear their debt on receipt of a bailiff letter to avoid more fees being added to the final bill.

Credit: Andrey_Popov/

What are bailiffs?

Bailiffs are enforcement agents who have the legal power to remove goods from people who owe money if they are unable to settle their debt.

Only after the company owed the money has been through the courts to get a judgement will bailiffs be allowed to pursue a debt.

Before this, companies may use debt collection agencies to try and recover the debt, but debt collectors don't have the same legal powers as bailiffs, even if sometimes they pretend that they do. Most importantly, debt collectors don't have the legal right to force entry - bailiffs do in some instances.

Bailiffs may be sent to recover different types of debt including:

  • County court judgements (CCJs)
  • High court judgements
  • Magistrates' court fines and compensation orders
  • Council tax
  • Business rates
  • Rent
  • Income tax
  • National insurance
  • VAT
  • Parking penalties
  • Child support
  • Maintenance payments

The only way bailiffs can collect debts regulated under the Consumer Credit Act (such as payday loans, credit cards and overdraft debts) is if the company owed has taken a customer to court and obtained a CCJ or if the customer has ignored a CCJ.

What are the different types of bailiffs?

There are different types of bailiffs who enforce different types of debt. These are:

  • County court and family court bailiffs - Enforce county court judgements (CCJs)
  • High court enforcement officers - Enforce high court judgements or CCJs that have been transferred to the High Court
  • Certificated enforcement agents - Enforce debts on behalf of bodies such as local authorities and hold a certificate which allows them to chase debts like council tax and road traffic debts
  • Civilian enforcement officers - Enforce magistrates' court fines

Although different types of bailiffs chase different types of debt, debtors must be given at least seven days' notice of their first visit. We go into this in more detail below.

What powers do bailiffs have?

Bailiffs can't enter a home without invitation except in specific circumstances (see below).

There are other rules bailiffs must stick to:

  • They can't enter a home by force
  • They can't enter if only children under 16 or vulnerable people are present
  • They can't enter between 9pm and 6am
  • They can't enter by means other than the door (i.e. a window)

However, just because bailiffs can't force their way into a house, that doesn't mean they can't enforce the debt in other ways. If a car or motorbike is outside the property, for example, this could be seized.

Once inside a property, bailiffs will try to negotiate payment for a debt. If the customer can't or won't pay, bailiffs will look to remove goods which could be sold to settle the debt.

Although they can take luxury items like televisions and games consoles, they can't take anything that is essential for everyday life. They must leave items such as:

  • A fridge
  • A cooker or a microwave
  • A washing machine
  • Beds and enough bedding for all household members
  • Dining table and chairs for all household members
  • Heating and lighting appliances
  • Medical equipment or care equipment

There are also other restrictions on what bailiffs can take. They cannot remove the following:

  • Tools, books or equipment which is essential for work or study (up to a maximum total value of £1,350)
  • Items bought with hire purchase agreements which have not yet been paid in full
  • Fixtures of the house such as fitted wardrobes or bathroom units
  • Pets or assistance dogs

Any goods in the house which are owned by someone other than the debtor (i.e. a partner's laptop) cannot be seized as long as evidence is produced to confirm they own the item.

Items owned jointly are able to be seized. There's more information about the rules on joint liability of debt in our guide on what to do if a spouse runs up debt in your name.

Items that are currently in use such as machinery or a vehicle can't be seized at the time, but bailiffs could return for those at a later date to help settle the debt.

How to deal with bailiff warning letters

Bailiffs will usually make contact by sending a "notice of enforcement".

They must give at least seven days' notice before their first visit, although bear in mind that this could be seven days from the date of their letter, not seven days from when a household received it.

Don't be tempted to ignore the letter - if a bailiff attends a property, they can charge fees on top of the debt which could make the problem worse.

What steps to take when you receive a bailiff letter

A letter from a bailiff can serve as a reminder that a debt needs to be paid. If it's possible to pay the debt, this is the first option.

Contact the bailiffs as soon as possible to pay and this will prevent further fees being added to the account. However, remember to request a receipt for any payment to avoid confusion further down the line if, for example, there is a miscommunication and bailiffs still turn up on the doorstep.

Debtors can also try to negotiate with bailiffs after receiving the letter to see if the debt could be paid in instalments or what other options there are. There's more guidance on this below.

Be sure to check if the notice of enforcement is valid. If it isn't, this could buy some more time before the bailiffs visit. To be valid, a notice must:

  • Include debtor's accurate name and address
  • Include accurate statement of the debt including the right amount
  • Explain a debtor has seven days' advance notice of a bailiff's visit
  • Be sent via letter
  • Be written in a legal style
  • Come from a registered bailiff

As we've already mentioned, only bailiffs are allowed to enforce debt, so if a letter is from a debt collection agency rather than a registered bailiff, it is not an official notice.

Search for the name of the bailiff on the Government's Bailiffs Register to check they're legitimate.

If any of the above details are incorrect on the notice of enforcement, contact the bailiff and let them know - they will need to issue a correct notice before visiting.

Working out which date is the earliest a bailiff can visit could also provide vital time for a debtor to plan how to deal with the debt.

Seven full days must pass between the letter being received and the bailiff visiting. This excludes the day the notice is received, the day of the visit itself and also excludes Sundays and bank holidays.

Is the debt legitimate?

If the debt belongs to someone else or has already been paid in full, it's important to tell the bailiff as soon as the letter arrives rather than waiting until they arrive on the doorstep.

Mistakes are made on notices of enforcement, so customers may receive a notice relating to a debt that belongs to someone with a similar name or has been mistakenly attributed to someone at an address.

If the debt genuinely does not belong to the household, contact the bailiff immediately - however, this must not be used as a delaying tactic as it could incur extra fees if the bailiffs have to take extra steps to prove who the debt belongs to.

If a debt has already been settled, the person named on the notice of enforcement should gather evidence that the debt has been paid and send it straight to the bailiff's address. This could include a receipt from a payment or a partially redacted bank statement showing the date the payment was made.

Is it possible to challenge a debt?

Debts can be disputed if the person named on the notice of enforcement does not believe they owe the debt. This could be the case if:

  • The debt belongs to someone who has died and was not a joint debt
  • If a debt is in joint names and the other person has admitted in writing that they owe the money
  • It has been more than six years since a payment was made or the debtor was in contact with the creditor
  • If the debtor was pressured into signing an agreement
  • If the agreement wasn't clear
  • If the person was an additional cardholder rather than the person responsible for a debt
  • If the person is under 18 and the debt if for non-everyday items (i.e. an under-18 is liable for clothes, food or mobile phone debts)

Certain debts will be challengeable for specific reasons such as benefits overpayments and energy back-billing.

If you genuinely believe a debt is worth challenging, get the ball rolling as soon as possible rather than leaving it as a last throw of the dice when the bailiffs arrive - just telling them you're challenging won't stop them enforcing the debt.

Top tips from Debt Support Trust
  • 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

How to stop bailiffs at the door

Bailiffs can only usually enter a property with the consent of the occupants, so it's important not to invite them in. Instead, speak to them through the door or by using the phone to avoid them getting access to the property.

The first thing to do when a bailiff arrives is to check their identification. If they try to say they don't have any proof of who they are, this is major red flag - registered bailiffs are required to carry it with them while working.

You can verify their identity by:

  • Checking they're a bailiff and not a debt collector
  • Checking which company they're from and asking for a phone number
  • Checking with the court that sent them

When checking their documents, it's not mandatory to open the door - they could pass them through a letterbox or show proof at a window. It remains important at all times not to let them into the house.

Can a bailiff force entry?

There are only a few circumstances where a bailiff can force entry into a home or business, and this is a last resort for them when chasing these debts:

  • Unpaid criminal fines from magistrates' courts
  • Income Tax or other HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) debts
  • Stamp Duty debts

In these cases, a bailiff could leave and return with a locksmith to force entry.

Bailiffs do not have the right to force entry and enforce other types of debt including:

  • Credit card debts
  • Catalogue debts
  • Council tax arrears
  • Energy debts
  • Phone debts
  • Unpaid parking fines

If a bailiff bluffs they are allowed to force entry for these debts, it's worth reading their credentials again and double-checking they are not from a debt collection agency rather than being a registered bailiff.

Do I have to pay my debt to bailiffs on the doorstep?

If it's possible to pay a genuine debt to a bailiff on the doorstep, this should always be the first choice, but debtors should not feel bullied or frightened.

Remember, bailiffs aren't allowed to force their way into a property, and they will usually leave if a debtor consistently refuses to let them in.

However, just because they leave, that doesn't mean the debt goes with them. They will usually return, and the debt may increase due to extra bailiff fees being added on top.

The best way to deal with bailiffs if the debt can't be paid in full straight away is to negotiate with them.

How to negotiate debt with bailiffs

Bailiffs have one goal when they arrive on a doorstep - to recover debt on behalf of a creditor. As such, they can initially seem inflexible, demanding payment immediately.

If a debtor is unable to pay the full amount of the debt on receipt of a letter or on the doorstep, negotiating with the bailiff to pay some of what is owed is a good way of showing wiliness to clear the debt:

  • A debtor could ask if it's possible to pay most of the debt (naming a realistic figure that won't leave them short of money)
  • Or a debtor could set up a payment arrangement of small regular payments to clear the debt gradually

Bailiffs may reject these offers, but a willingness to negotiate is an important step when dealing with enforcement officers because it shows a debtor wants to pay.

All payment arrangements should be realistic to avoid customers defaulting on the debt and potentially finding themselves owing even more money in charges or fees.

Put agreement in writing

When negotiating by post or email with a bailiff, it's important to keep written documentation of all the correspondence.

So, when working out a potential payment arrangement, work out what is affordable every month and submit this in writing to the bailiff. It can also be useful to send it directly to the creditor as well to show willingness to pay the money owed.

Send all documentation by recorded delivery if possible or ask for a free proof of postage receipt. Keep copies of everything sent.

If the bailiffs agree to the arrangement, debtors must see this in writing, so they know what they're agreeing to before they sign anything. Also, make sure the bailiffs sign their part - otherwise they may still be able to chase for the debt.

What if bailiffs won't agree to negotiate?

If bailiffs refuse a negotiation offer, it's possible to go directly to the creditor and ask them to accept the offer - if it's a reasonable one, they may agree where the bailiff has not.

A debtor could keep paying anyway, despite a formal offer being rejected. This allows them to show proof they have been attempting to clear the debt if further action is taken against them.

Again, keep a record of every payment to prove the debt is being gradually cleared.

With county court or high court debts, debtors can apply to the court to request they accept the offer the bailiff and creditor have refused.

The correct forms to do this can be found on the GOV.UK website: form N245 for a debt from the county court and form N244 for a debt from the high court.

Bear in mind there will be extra fees to apply to the court, but debtors may be able to get help with them if they're on a low income or claiming certain types of benefits.

What's a controlled goods agreement?

If a bailiff makes it into a property and a debtor is unable to pay what they owe, the bailiff will make a controlled goods agreement. This is an inventory of any valuable items within the home which could be sold to pay off the debt.

Note: if a car is outside the home, this can be clamped and the bailiffs take control of it from that point on.

Bailiffs used controlled goods agreements to make deals with debtors - either the debtor pays in an agreed period of time or they will return and remove goods from the inventory.

Debtors should look at any inventory carefully, checking the items listed are allowed to be taken (see exclusions list above) and highlighting any items which don't belong to the debtor.

It's also worth checking all the details on the controlled goods agreement are correct before signing, and the document must be signed before it is valid.

Be aware that bailiffs can remove goods anyway if a debtor refuses to sign a controlled goods agreement with a plan to repay the debt included.

What do bailiffs charge?

Bailiffs charge fees for collecting money owed by debtors, along with associated activities and expenses such as letters, visits and court fees.

All fees a bailiff charges a debtor must be supplied in a written bill at the time a debtor agrees to pay or when their goods are seized if they refuse to pay.

There are different fees depending on which type of bailiff is collecting the debt.

Bailiffs who aren't from the High Court

Bailiffs will charge a fixed fee for each stage and extra fees will be added on debts that are over £1,500:

  • Writing to debtor about debt - £75 fixed fee
  • Enforcing debt by visiting home - £235 fixed fee + 7.5% on additional debt over £1,500
  • Taking/selling belongings - £110 fixed fee + 7.5% on additional debt over £1,500

Bailiffs who are from the High Court

High Court bailiffs are allowed to charge a fixed fee for each stage, but there is an additional stage relating to failing to keep to an agreement or failing to make one:

  • Writing to debtor about debt - £75 fixed fee
  • Enforcing debt by visiting home - £190 + 7.5% on additional debt over £1,000
  • If debtor didn't make or didn't stick to an agreement - £495 + 7.5% on additional debt over £1,000
  • Taking/selling belongings - £525 fixed fee + 7.5% on additional debt over £1,000

Other bailiff fees

Bailiffs can also add expenses to the charges passed on to debtors.

These expenses are limited and apply to the following:

  • Storage of belongings after they have been seized
  • Locksmith costs if a bailiff was allowed to use force to get into the property
  • Court fees if a bailiff had to apply to court to deal with the case
  • Selling of belongs including any auctioneer's fees and advertising
  • Online auction fees

All services listed above must cost their usual amounts, and a debtor can challenge if they think the costs are unreasonable - just be sure to get a receipt at the time.

How to complain about bailiffs

Bailiffs are allowed to enforce debt, but they are strictly governed by rules about what they can and can't do as we've covered in this guide.

If a bailiff has behaved unreasonably or illegally, the debtor can complain on the following grounds:

  • If rules were broken about getting access to the property or if bailiffs lie about being able to force entry when they're not allowed to
  • If bailiffs take items they shouldn't or threaten to
  • If they refuse a reasonable repayment offer or try to pressure a debtor into paying more of the debt than they can afford
  • If they keep contacting a person even if they don't owe the debt
  • If they discriminate against the debtor
  • If they act aggressively
  • If they tell others about the debt
  • If they continue to visit after a debt is paid

In all these circumstances, debtors should complain to the creditor (the person or organisation they owe the debt to). This should be done in writing and it's good practice to send a copy to the bailiff too.

If the responses from the creditor and the bailiff themselves are inadequate, there are trade bodies which regulate bailiffs chasing debts. These can be contacted if a poor response is received or if no response is received after 28 days.

Finally, some industries have ombudsmen to ensure they're behaving properly. Debtors can complain to the ombudsman representing these industries, but only after complaining to the creditor first:

  • Energy companies
  • Internet and phone companies
  • HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC)
  • Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)
  • Magistrates' courts
  • Local councils

Getting help with debt

To avoid bailiff action, the best thing to do is address debts early - even if it's not possible to pay them off immediately.

We've got a full guide on where you can get help with debt and specific information on how to deal with debt as an older person.

Find out if a company can wipe credit card debt here and read this guide about the difference between debt charities and debt management companies.

Get free advice
More information in our guide or quick links:


Bailiffs sending a letter or arriving on the doorstep can be frightening, but they are legally restricted in what they can and can't do.

Know your rights about the process bailiffs must follow and understand how much they can charge on top of the debt to ensure they're sticking to the rules.

Responding to a bailiff letter as soon as it arrives by calling the bailiff will potentially make things easier as you're showing willingness to clear the debt.

The aim of the bailiff is to recover the money, but they must behave reasonably. It's important to remember that you must behave reasonably too, however: whether you feel the bailiff is chasing a legitimate debt or not, it's vital to stay calm and not risk making the situation worse.


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