What do you do when the bailiffs are at your door? The thought of having your possessions taken away is enough to run anyone’s blood cold, so it’s vital to know your rights and understand what you can do to protect yourself.
Bailiffs were renamed in 2014 as ‘enforcement agents’ – as part of an overhaul intended to make them less archaic. They’ll use this term whenever they communicate with you, but most people still call them bailiffs.
They can be used to collect unpaid council tax, business rates, personal debts (if you have persistently refused to pay them and other debt collection attempts have failed), parking charge notices (PCNs), congestion charges, child support, tax, VAT or magistrates’ court fines.
Bailiffs aren’t the same as debt collectors, which are private firms that don’t have the same powers to enter your property or seize goods. Instead, bailiffs are Crown officials.
People you owe this money to must get permission from a County Court in order to seize your property. This used to be called a warrant of execution, but since April 2014 has been known as a warrant of control or writ of control.
Before they pay you a visit, they have to send you a notice of enforcement – either by post, hand delivery, fax, email or fixing it to the front of your property. This explains why they are coming, and outlines what you can do to avoid a visit. It should give you at least seven days’ notice – unless they have a court order giving them permission to give you less notice.
At this stage, you can stop the bailiffs coming if you have grounds to dispute the debt. You may also be able to contact the organisation you owe money to and ask them to write the debt off, or negotiate payment terms. If it’s the magistrate’s court, you can make an offer to pay by instalments, and may be able to apply to the court to suspend bailiff action for as long as you are paying those instalments. You may be able to contact the bailiffs and make them a reasonable offer. In some instances, however, the only way to stop them coming is to pay in full.
- 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 unlocked door – although the rules established in 2014 mean they are no longer allowed to climb in through a window.
- They may not gain access if the only people home are children or vulnerable adults.
- 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 and most furniture. The new rules updated the list of items considered essentials, which now includes things like the fridge, phone, microwave and washing machine.
- The new rules also mean they can no longer take items used for the care of children, disabled people and the elderly.
- They also cannot take items needed for study.
- They cannot take ‘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 – although they are not allowed to take a car that is needed by a disabled person.
- By far the best approach is to tackle the issue before the bailiffs arrive.
- However, if they come, you do not have to let them in.
- If you want to stop them coming back time after time, you will need to take action. This means either contacting the organisation you owe money to, talking to the bailiffs through the letterbox or a window – or leaving the property to talk to them.
- If you don’t feel you owe the money, you need to dispute the debt. In these instances it’s essential you do not let them in to seize items, as this may count against you in the dispute.
- Otherwise, the aim should be to try to come to an agreement with them as to how they will be paid – as when they seize items they will usually get very little for them.
- Bailiffs and debt collectors are bound by the Office of Fair Trading’s debt collection guidelines, which forbid harassment and threatening behaviour.
- 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.
- Where complaints are particularly serious, the 2014 rules introduced the right to go to court, where the judge can rule that the bailiff must return your items or pay you compensation.
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