Bailiffs

Bailiffs are authorised collection agents who recover debts on behalf of creditors. They have the legal right to seize certain assets to settle outstanding debts when other recovery methods have failed.

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If you have unpaid debt, every letter, phone call, and knock at the door can leave you feeling anxious that a bailiff is coming to seize your belongings.

Usually, bailiff action is only considered after all other reasonable avenues of debt collection have been exhausted, but it can still lead to feelings of extreme anxiety and stress.

However, there are certain rules bailiffs must follow when they enforce a debt and, despite what most people think, they can't just turn up announced and remove items from your home.

By familiarising yourself with what bailiffs can and can't do, you can be better equipped to deal with enforcement action when it happens.

What is a bailiff?

The word 'bailiff' can sound daunting, but it's simply the name given to an enforcement agent with the legal power to collect an unpaid debt on behalf of a creditor, such as a landlord, local council, or private company.

Depending on the severity of the debt, some bailiffs also have the authority to evict you from your home and arrest you.

Typically, the first thing a bailiff will do when they visit you is demand immediate payment of the debt before drawing up a list of items they believe would cover the value of the debt if they were to be resold at auction - this is known as 'taking control of goods'.

Bailiffs can seize goods for a wide range of unpaid debts, including County Court Judgments (CCJs), parking fines, council tax arrears, child maintenance fees, business rent, and VAT.

However, bailiffs can usually only be used after your creditor has applied for a County Court Judgment and you haven't stuck to the payment terms as laid out by the court.

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Is a bailiff the same as a debt collector?

The terms 'bailiff' and 'debt collector' are often used interchangeably, but while both can visit you at home, they are not the same.

For example, a bailiff is a court-appointed enforcement officer while a debt collector works on behalf of a creditor or debt collection agency.

This means that a bailiff has the legal power to enter your property and seize your belongings while a debt collector can only try to come to an agreement with you over how to repay the debt.

Furthermore, a bailiff can usually only be used after court action while a debt collector can be used at any stage of the debt recovery process - even if you've already agreed upon a repayment schedule with your creditor.

Are there different types of bailiffs?

There are several different types of bailiffs that operate in the UK, each with their own legal rights and responsibilities depending on the type of debt they're trying to recover.

Here is a guide to the different types of bailiffs and when they're used:

High Court enforcement officers

High Court enforcement officers (HCEOs) have greater powers than any other type of enforcement agent in the UK and can add 8% interest to the debts they've been assigned to collect.

They deal with a wide range of debts, including utility arrears, business debts, rent arrears, CCJs above £600, and debts not regulated by the Consumer Credit Act (1974).

County Court bailiff

County Court bailiffs are employed directly by the court (specifically HM Courts & Tribunals) and can enforce judgments up to the value of £5,000.

They deal with a wide range of debts and can also serve court documents but their main focus is to recover unpaid CCJs, including outstanding balances, court costs, and added interest.

Certificated enforcement agents

Certificated enforcement agents are the most common type of bailiff in the UK and are hired by private companies to recover various debts, such as rent arrears, parking fines, and child maintenance fees.

However, while a certificated enforcement agent isn't recognised as a court-appointed enforcement officer, they have all the qualifications needed to collect unpaid debts.

There are other types of bailiffs that operate in the UK, such as family court bailiffs and civilian enforcement officers, but they're far less common and usually only used for specific cases.

Similarly, while enforcement officers are the preferred term in England and Wales, sheriffs officers are the legal equivalent of bailiffs in Scotland.

What is a controlled goods agreement?

If you can't afford to repay the debt in full, the bailiff will make a list of items that are likely to sell for a good price at auction, such as vehicles, jewellery, and electricals.

They will then try to come to an agreement with you over how to repay the debt in monthly instalments.

This is known as a 'controlled goods agreement' and is essentially a way of being able to keep your belongings in exchange for making regular payments towards the debt.

Most bailiffs will take your income and expenditure into account when calculating your payments to ensure they are realistic and affordable for you.

However, if you break the controlled goods agreement (e.g. by missing a payment or not paying in full), the bailiff can return after giving you two days' notice and seize the items listed in the agreement. This is also one of the few instances where a bailiff can try to force entry into your home to remove the goods.

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What powers do bailiffs have?

There are certain rules bailiffs must follow when they visit you to collect an unpaid debt and understanding what they can and can't do can help put your mind at ease about upcoming enforcement action.

For example, a bailiff can't enter your home outside the hours of 6am and 9pm or through any entrance other than a door.

They must also have your permission to enter and can't enter if the only person at home is a child (under 16) or vulnerable (e.g. disabled or suffering from a mental health problem).

Furthermore, a bailiff must provide at least seven days' notice before they visit you to give you a chance to repay the debt in full or agree on a repayment plan.

This usually involves serving you with a 'notice of enforcement' or 'enforcement notice'.

However, a bailiff can enter your home if you're not there if someone else lets them in or if they have received prior permission from you to enter.

There are also no rules stating that you can't talk to the bailiff from an upstairs window or even through your letterbox if you wish, but they can enter if you leave a door or window unlocked.

What items can bailiffs take?

"There is a common misconception that bailiffs can enter your home and take whatever they wish as long as it allows them to repay the debt, but this isn't quite true."

The kind of things bailiffs typically look for when they visit you are high-value items, such as cars, jewellery, and electrical goods or gadgets.

They can only take goods they can physically touch and remove, meaning any items they can see through a window or letterbox but can't reach are strictly off-limits.

There is a common misconception that bailiffs can enter your home and take whatever they wish as long as it allows them to repay the debt, but this isn't quite true.

They must leave you with basic household items, such as:

  • White goods (e.g. fridge, cooker, microwave, and washing machine)
  • Equipment required for work or study up to a total value of £1,350 (e.g. tools, books and computers)
  • Dining chairs and tables that would leave anyone in the household short
  • Landline and mobile phones
  • Mobility vehicles and vehicles displaying a disability badge
  • Fixtures and fittings (e.g. kitchen units, fitted wardrobes, and lighting)

These items are classed as 'protected goods' and can't be seized during a bailiff visit. Some bailiffs will threaten to remove these items if you can't pay, but they are prohibited from trying to physically remove them from your home.

Can a bailiff force entry into my home?

For most types of debt, a bailiff must try to gain 'peaceful entry' into your home on the first visit and you don't have to give them permission to enter.

This means you can talk to them through a door or window and ask them to verify their identity before letting them come inside.

However, there are certain instances in which a bailiff may be able to force entry into your home, such as if they're collecting an unpaid criminal fine, you owe money to HMRC, or you broke a controlled goods agreement.

They will still need to provide proof of the debt and you have a right to check the details shown are accurate and up-to-date.

They are also not allowed to break down your door to gain entry and must stick to using 'reasonable force', meaning they can forcibly open a door, cut a padlock, or return with a locksmith if

necessary.

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What should I do if a bailiff knocks on my door looking for someone else?

"The best way to deal with a bailiff looking for someone else is to calmly explain that you're not the individual listed on the enforcement notice and provide evidence to confirm what you're saying is true."

When a bailiff is instructed to collect an unpaid debt, they must legally visit the last-known address listed for the debtor - even if the entry is several years old.

This may mean a bailiff knocks on your door looking for the previous tenant, which can be distressing if you've just moved into the property and have never been in debt.

However, it's important to note that a bailiff can't legally seize any goods from a home that isn't the property of the debtor and doesn't have the authorisation to remove your goods to repay someone else's debt.

This means that, as long as you can prove you're not the debtor, your belongings should be safe.

The best way to deal with a bailiff looking for someone else is to calmly explain that you're not the individual listed on the enforcement notice and provide evidence to confirm what you're saying is true.

This can be done by showing the bailiff a valid ID, your tenancy agreement, unopened letters addressed to the previous tenant, or logbooks belonging to your car that's parked outside.

Will I be charged for a bailiff visit?

When your creditor hires a bailiff to collect an unpaid debt, bailiff fees will be added to your outstanding balance, increasing the total amount you owe.

The amount you'll be charged depends on what stage of the debt collection process you're at and your total debt level.

For example, if the debt is less than £1,500, you'll likely be charged £75 when a bailiff is hired (compliance fee), £235 when a bailiff visits you (enforcement fee), and £110 when your goods are removed (sale fee).

There may also be extra fees added if the bailiff has to return with a locksmith.

However, if the debt is more than £1,500, you'll also be charged an extra 7.5% of your total debt on top of the fixed enforcement fee and 7.5% of your total debt on top of the fixed sale fee.

For example, if you owe £2,000, you'll be charged £385 (235+150) when a bailiff first visits you and £260 (110+150) when your goods are removed.

How do I complain about a bailiff?

If you're not happy with the way a bailiff has treated you during the debt collection process or you think they've broken the rules, you have a right to complain directly to their employer or your creditor.

They will then review your complaint and provide you with the outcome of their investigation.

There are certain rules a bailiff must follow when they visit you and you should make a complaint if a bailiff threatens or harasses you, breaks into your home without a warrant, overcharges you, removes goods they're not supposed to, or takes essential items from your home.

However, if you're not satisfied with the outcome of your complaint or the way the investigation was handled, you are advised to seek legal advice and escalate it to the relevant governing body, financial ombudsman, or court.

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Conclusion

If you have unpaid debt, your creditor may resort to bailiff action to help them recover the money owed.

This can be daunting - especially if you've never dealt with enforcement officers or been in debt before - but understanding your rights can help put your mind at ease.

Before a bailiff visits you, they must provide at least seven days' notice to give you an opportunity to repay the debt or arrange a repayment plan.

They can also only visit you between the hours of 6am and 9pm and if they have your permission to enter.

By knowing what a bailiff can and can't do when they visit you, you can know what to expect from enforcement action and recognise when you're being treated unfairly.

There are strict guidelines a bailiff must follow when they visit you and you have a right to complain if any of these rules are broken.

Key Takeaways

  • Bailiffs are court-appointed enforcement officers who work on behalf of the court to collect unpaid debts
  • Despite both being authorised to collect unpaid debts, bailiffs and debt collectors are not the same
  • There are several different types of bailiffs authorised to enforce debt in the UK, including a High Court enforcement officer, County Court bailiff, civilian enforcement officer, and family court bailiff
  • Most bailiffs will let you keep your belongings in exchange for making regular payments towards the debt with a controlled goods agreement
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