Having bailiffs knock on the door is the stuff of nightmares. The thought of having your possessions taken away is enough to run anyone’s blood cold. Three years ago, the government attempted to strengthen bailiffs powers by allowing access to property without the owners’ permission. The proposals were dropped, but resisting the bailiff remains a complicated and stressful issue and it’s important to know your rights.
Who calls in the bailiffs?
Distressed creditors, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and magistrates pursuing court fines can use private debt collectors or public bailiffs to recover the money they are owed. Debt collectors are private firms; bailiffs are Crown officials. Therefore, debt collectors do not enjoy the same powers as bailiffs: they cannot enter a debtor’s house and they cannot seize property; bailiffs can.
You may get the knock on the door if you consistently refuse to pay council tax, business rates, personal debts, parking charge notices (PCNs), congestion charges, child support, the Inland Revenue, VAT or magistrates’ court fines. Creditors must obtain a ‘warrant of execution’ from a County Court in order to commence sequestering property.
What a bailiff can and can’t do
- A bailiff cannot force their way into your property. That includes pushing their way past you when you open the door to them, or leaving their foot in the door to prevent you closing it. Such action is technically illegal.
- They are not allowed to use violence.
- A bailiff can gain access to your property legitimately by using an open window or an unlocked door. Providing they have a magistrate’s warrant, bailiffs recovering money owed to HMRC are allowed to break into the debtor’s property.
- Creditors can punish mortgage defaulters by obtaining an eviction order from a County Court. Then, bailiffs are entitled to break into the defaulter’s house.
- Bailiffs recovering unpaid magistrates’ court fines have the power to force entry without a warrant in all circumstances.
- A bailiff cannot confiscate essentials – like clothes, most furniture and the ‘tools of the trade’, such as a computer used for work.
- Obviously, they cannot take anything that is rented or hired – that would defeat the object.
- They may take non-essentials, such as televisions, personal computers, cars and garden equipment.
What you can do
- You do not have to let the bailiffs in.
- It is better to negotiate with your creditors and seek re-ordering payments than give up your property.
- If there is any doubt you owe money, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau warn against handing property over to bailiffs: complying with bailiffs’ demands is an admission of guilt and will count against any debt dispute lodged later.
- Obtaining leverage over bailiffs is difficult because they are self-regulated, though there are plans to create an independent watchdog soon.
- Bailiffs and debt collectors are bound by the Office of Fair Trading’s debt collection guidelines, which forbid harassment and threatening behaviour. However those guidelines are open to loose interpretation. The Citizens Advice Bureau claim that of 500 cases involving bailiffs, nearly a quarter had abused their powers, some even threatened debtors with imprisonment.
- If a bailiff is overbearing or exceeds the terms of their remit, contact the Office of Fair Trading.
- If you are physically threatened by a bailiff, report the incident to the police.
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For more advice on how to resist bailiffs- check out Citizens Advice at www.adviceguide.org.uk and the Office of Fair Trading.
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