It’s the nightmare scenario no-one wants to experience: being paid a visit by the bailiff. To escape the negativity associated with their original title, bailiffs now call themselves ‘enforcement agents’.
But, whether they call themselves a bailiff or enforcement agent, the one thing that has remained unchanged is, if you find one on your doorstep, you can guarantee they are after the debt owed.
Having your possessions taken away to pay off that debt is hardly a nice situation for anyone to be in. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, backed into a corner and bullied, so it’s vital to know your rights and understand what you can do to protect yourself.
- Who calls in the bailiffs?
- Make sure the bailiff is made aware if…
- What a bailiff can and can’t do
- What you can do
- Help paying off debts
Bailiffs, or enforcement agents, can be used to collect unpaid council tax, business rates, personal debts, parking charge notices (PCNs), congestion charges, child support, tax, VAT or magistrates’ court fines. However, they usually only come calling when other methods of procuring the payment owed have failed.
It’s important to note that bailiffs aren’t the same as debt collectors. Debt collectors come from private firms and don’t have the same powers to enter your property or seize goods. Instead, bailiffs are Crown officials.
Organisations or people you owe money to must first 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, this has been known as a Warrant of Control or Writ of Control.
Once this has been procured, before they pay you a visit, the organisation then has to send you a notice of enforcement. This can be by post, hand delivery, fax, email or even fixing it to the front of your property. This explains why they are coming, and outlines what you can do to avoid a visit.
Regardless of the method used, you should be allowed at least seven days’ notice. The only circumstance in which they are allowed to visit your property within those first seven days is if they have a special court order.
Ideally, you will use those seven days to clear the debt before it reaches the point where a visit from the bailiff is necessary. You can do this by contacting the organisation you owe money to and write the debt off or negotiate payment terms.
For example, a debt owed to the magistrate’s court can be paid off in installments if you don’t have enough cash in hand to pay the lump sum. You could therefore apply to the court to suspend any action taken by the bailiff as long as you’re making those payments and continue to make them.
In some instances, however, the only way to stop the bailiff from calling is to pay in full upfront, so make sure you understand the exact terms of the debt during the seven-day notice period.
- You have mental health problems.
- You are under the age of 18.
- You are over the age of 65.
- English isn’t your first language and you can’t speak/read English fluently.
- Have children (especially if they are in the house at the time of the visit) or are pregnant.
- Have had a recent bereavement or suddenly unemployed.
- You’re disabled or seriously ill.
If any of the above points apply to you, the bailiff operates under varying guidelines and should make allowances. It’s therefore within your best interest to make them aware of your situation upon visitation.
- A bailiff cannot force their way into your property. They can’t put their foot in the door or push their way past you without a warrant. You are perfectly within your rights to pursue legal action if they enter your property without the necessary paperwork to hand.
- At no point are they allowed to exhibit violent or threatening behaviour. If you’re made to feel vulnerable, you are entitled to lodge a complaint, call the police or order them to leave your property.
- A bailiff can access the property through unlocked doors. If you’re expecting a visit from the bailiff, make sure all of your doors and windows are locked. However, in some circumstances, bailiffs can secure permission to enter a property using ‘reasonable force’. This doesn’t mean they will be kicking down your front door. Usually, they will return to your property with a locksmith.
- Bailiffs cannot enter a property where the only occupants are children or vulnerable adults.
- Bailiffs recovering money owed to HMRC are allowed to break into the debtor’s property. Once again, however, the bailiff cannot use force to enter the 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 using reasonable force.
- Bailiffs recovering unpaid magistrates’ court fines have the power to force entry without a warrant in all circumstances.
- A bailiff cannot confiscate essentials. ‘Essentials’ includes things like clothes, most furniture, your phone, microwave, fridge and washing machine.
- Bailiffs cannot take items needed for study or ‘tools of the trade’.
- The bailiff cannot take anything that is rented or hired.
If you haven’t been able to tackle the issue during the notice period, then you need to know what you can do when the bailiffs arrive.
The most important thing to remember is, unless they have a warrant or proof, you don’t have to let them in.
- You 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 face to face.
- Disputing the debt. You might think the organisation has made a mistake, or the money owed isn’t the correct sum. In these instances it’s essential you do not let them in to seize items, as this may count against you in the dispute.
- Reach an agreement with them as to how they will be paid. Bailiffs have a bad reputation, but it’s important not to act aggressively or unreasonably when speaking with them.
- Be polite and agreeable so you can effectively reach an agreement that suits both parties.
- If you are physically threatened by a bailiff, report the incident to the police immediately.
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For more advice on how to resist bailiffs, check out Citizens Advice at www.adviceguide.org.uk.