I sometimes get asked about your rights where bailiffs are concerned. This is quite a specialist area and so I asked Alison Blackwood of StepChange to provide some guidance.
Here at StepChange Debt Charity we are still hearing from our clients about problems with the behaviour of bailiffs and bailiff firms. In fact we were so concerned at instances of bailiff not seeming to follow regulations and standards, that we are working with eight other charities on a campaign “Taking Control” that is calling for further bailiff reform.
But, reform is a long-term aim. What happens if you are visited by a bailiff now? First of all, bailiffs are not the same as debt collectors: a debt collector doesn’t have any special legal powers to collect a debt, whereas a bailiff does. If you are certain you are being contacted by a bailiff, it’s good to know what powers they have, so you understand what they can and can’t do.
Before you get a knock at the door
Before any visit to your home takes place, bailiffs must send you a letter called a notice of enforcement. This will give you seven clear days’ warning before they visit. This means as long as the organisation you owe money to (the creditor) has your current address, you’ll get a warning before the first bailiff visit, and a chance to discuss repaying the amount owed.
If you are not the person named on the notice of enforcement, you should write to the creditor and the bailiff firm, stating that you are not the person named on the enforcement notice. The letters should be sent by recorded delivery and you should keep a copy, so you can prove you have done this if you receive further correspondence, or a visit, about the debt.
If the bailiff then still turns up and is shown your copy of letter and of recorded delivery, along with ID such as a rent bill, that should be sufficient to turn them away. Although we’ve had examples where this hasn’t worked and the case has had to be escalated through the bailiff complaints process – which is another maze-like range of options.
When and where
A bailiff can only visit you at home between 6am and 9pm. There are some exceptions if they’re calling at a business which opens at night, or if a court has given special permission, but this is rare.
Bailiffs can visit any property in England or Wales where you live, or run a business. If you’re self-employed they can visit your business address. But if you work for someone else they shouldn’t call at your workplace. However, if visiting your workplace would let your employer or colleagues know of the debt that would be a “mustn’t” as it breaches the Data Protection Act They can visit someone else’s property if your goods are stored there, but they need to ask the court for permission first.
They can also take any goods you’ve left on a public road, including your car. They can check the DVLA records to find out if you’re the registered owner of a car.
Do you have to let them in?
In most cases a bailiff can only come into your house peacefully through a front or back door. They can’t break in without giving you a chance to let them in voluntarily. This means they must:
• Explain who they are
• Say why they’re calling
• Enter only with your permission
• Enter without using force
For most types of debt, when bailiffs first visit, they’re not allowed to:
• Climb through a window
• Break down doors or use a locksmith
• Push past you or put their foot in the door to stop you closing it
• Enter the property when there’s only a child under 16 at home
• Lie about who they are or why they’re calling
There are some cases when a bailiff is allowed to use force to enter your house if you refuse to let them in. For example, to collect an unpaid magistrates’ court fine; if you are self-employed, to enter your business to collect unpaid county court or high court judgements; or if the bailiff has been given a court order allowing them to use reasonable force to collect HMRC debts, like income tax. However, in most cases they have to ask permission from a judge before they’re allowed to use force, and evidence from the courts shows that this happens very rarely.
What will a bailiff do when they visit?
If you’re not able to pay the debt straight away, a bailiff will look for items which could be taken away and sold. They will try to come into your home to do this, but remember in most cases they can’t force their way in if you refuse.
They’ll make a list of these goods. The goods are then under the bailiff’s ‘control’. It is illegal to sell or give away these controlled goods until you’ve paid off the debt in full.
Bailiffs can remove controlled goods straight away, but it’s much more common for them to leave the goods with you. They’ll draw up a payment arrangement with you called a controlled goods agreement – usually they’ll ask for a lump sum straight away and they may allow you to pay off the rest in instalments.
If you miss any payments under the controlled goods agreement, the bailiffs can come back and remove the controlled goods to sell them – they can use force, if necessary, to take your goods at this point.
What can bailiffs take into control?
A bailiff must leave you with essential goods, including:
• A cooker or microwave, a fridge and a washing machine
• A landline or mobile phone
• Beds and bedding
• A table and chairs
• Appliances to heat and light your house
• Medical or care equipment
Some goods are protected and can’t be taken by a bailiff, for example:
• Goods which are owned by someone else – but they can take goods which you own jointly with someone else
• Pets and assistance dogs
• Tools or other equipment that are essential for your job or study, up to a maximum total value of £1,350
• A vehicle used by a disabled person
The bailiff must discuss the needs of you and everyone else in your household, and reach agreement about which items should be classified as essential and which can’t be taken.
Find out more
The law on bailiffs is complicated. The StepChange and National Debtline websites give more information on how best to deal with bailiff action, depending upon the type of debt you have. You can also find a fact sheet on how to complain about a private bailiff which includes sample letters.
Remember, if you need help with debt or are worried about a bailiff visit, please seek free advice from an independent debt charity as soon as possible.
And, if you feel pressured by bailiffs, campaign for change
You can share your experience on the Taking Control website. All stories shared are anonymously and the only data stored is your parliamentary constituency, so we can more effectively lobby local MPs for reform.
Alison Blackwood has been the Senior Campaigns & Policy Advocate at StepChange Debt Charity since May 2016, and is responsible for the organisation’s campaigning and policy work on civil procedure and enforcement. Before that she worked as a Senior Campaigns Officer at Citizens Advice, Strategy & Improvement Manager at London Borough of Camden and Head of Policy & Knowledge at London Voluntary Service Council. Alison is an RSA Fellow and has been a trustee of various small London charities and Chair of a local community enterprise organisation, Communities in Focus.