Bailiffs and mental health: How bailiffs should treat you if you’re vulnerable

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This article will explore the link between bailiffs and mental health, including what bailiff action typically involves and how bailiffs should treat you if you owe money as a vulnerable individual.

Dealing with debt can put an enormous strain on anyone’s mental health, but for vulnerable individuals with pre-existing mental health issues, it can present further challenges.

There are additional rules bailiffs must follow when visiting vulnerable individuals, such as allowing extra time to respond to letters and not entering unless someone else is there.

What is a bailiff?

The word ‘bailiff’ usually evokes negative connotations of someone knocking on your door at all hours of the night or breaking into your home and taking your belongings, but the reality is a little different.

Put simply, a bailiff is a legal officer authorised to collect unpaid debts on behalf of the court (high court, county court, or magistrates court). They have the legal power to remove and sell your belongings to repay a debt – known as ‘taking control of goods’.

When a bailiff visits your property, they will make a list of belongings they can potentially sell to repay the debt. This is known as a ‘controlled goods agreement’ and will include items most likely to fetch a good price at auction, such as electronics, furniture, and jewellery.

They will then set up a repayment schedule with you to allow you to repay the debt in regular instalments. Failure to make payments as agreed will result in the bailiff returning and seizing the goods.

How are bailiffs and mental health linked?

The link between bailiffs and mental health is significant with some studies indicating that as much as 50% of individuals with problem debt also suffer from mental health problems.

For example, being in debt can trigger several mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, due to the stress of worrying about money and the possibility of legal action.

Similarly, suffering from poor mental health can be a slippery slope to debt as it can make it more difficult to manage your finances and make repayments in full and on time.

How do I know if I’m vulnerable?

There are various factors that can make an individual vulnerable when it comes to the debt recovery process, such as:

Having a disability

Having a mental or physical disability may mean you struggle to stay on top of your finances and require extra time and assistance to make repayments.

Being seriously ill

Dealing with a serious illness or medical condition that affects your mental or physical health on a daily basis may mean a bailiff needs to talk to a carer, friend, or relative, about your debt and how best to deal with it.

Being under or over a certain age

Being under 18 or over 65 can increase your chances of experiencing financial difficulty as you may find it more difficult to understand certain situations, such as the terms of a credit agreement or the legal consequences of being in debt.

Suffering from poor mental health

Living with a mental health problem can seriously impair your decision-making capabilities, which can make you more likely to take risks with your finances or unknowingly get into debt.

Being pregnant or a parent

Being pregnant or a parent can present additional financial challenges and responsibilities, especially if you’re a single parent or are on a low income or benefits.

Having a language barrier

Dealing with debt can be stressful enough without having a language barrier to contend with. This situation will require a more empathetic and understanding approach and, in some cases, a bailiff may need to attend with a translator or interpreter.

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What does bailiff action typically involve?

The debt recovery process can vary and the steps taken will depend on your unique circumstances, such as the type and amount of debt owed.

Here is a guide to the steps you can expect when your creditor seeks bailiff action:

Your creditor applies for a warrant of control

The debt recovery process begins when your creditor applies for a ‘warrant of control. This is a legal document that authorises enforcement agents to take control of your possessions and can only be served if you have a County Court Judgment (CCJ) you haven’t paid.

You receive a notice of enforcement

Once your creditor has a warrant of control, you will be served with a ‘notice of enforcement’. This is a letter informing you that bailiffs will visit you if you don’t pay or arrange to pay the debt within seven clear days.

Bailiffs visit you at home

The next step in the debt recovery process is bailiffs visiting you at home. They will ask you to pay the debt in full but, if that isn’t an option, they will start making a list of items they can sell to recover the amount owed.

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How do I tell bailiffs I’m vulnerable?

Facing bailiff action as a vulnerable individual can be daunting, so you must inform an enforcement agent of your situation as soon as possible. This can be done by contacting them directly or getting a carer, friend, or relative to contact them on your behalf.

The quickest way to get in touch with a bailiff is to call the number listed on the enforcement notice. This must be done within seven days to prevent bailiffs from visiting you or adding extra fees without knowing your circumstances.

When you talk to an enforcement agent, you must explain why bailiff action could be more difficult for you than the average person and ask them to cancel any upcoming visits because of the extra distress it would cause you.

Remember to keep a note of when you called and what you agreed on during the call and, if you can, keep your creditor informed of the situation (if you owe council tax, your creditor will be your local council). Some creditors will avoid bailiff action altogether if they know you’re vulnerable and doing so could cause further harm to your mental or physical well-being.

How should bailiffs treat me if I’m vulnerable?

There are certain things a bailiff should and shouldn’t do if you’re vulnerable, such as:

  • only children are home
  • Give you extra time to make an offer of payment
  • Never seize or threaten to remove items necessary for your mental or physical health
  • Ensure you can communicate effectively and provide extra assistance if necessary (e.g. sending letters in braille or attending with a translator or interpreter)

How can I complain about the way a bailiff has treated me?

Being vulnerable can make the process of dealing with bailiffs much more stressful than it needs to be. However, if a bailiff knows you’re vulnerable and still treats you in a way you consider unacceptable or unfair, you must submit a complaint to both the bailiff and your creditor.

Depending on the severity of the complaint, this could result in the bailiff’s license being temporarily revoked or permanently suspended. Enforcement agents are aware of the rules they must follow when visiting vulnerable individuals and any attempt to break these rules shouldn’t be tolerated.

The government introduced additional reforms in 2014 in an attempt to tackle poor practice in the bailiff industry but, unfortunately, aggressive and hostile behaviour is still a common complaint.

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There are certain rules bailiffs must follow when visiting vulnerable individuals and you have a right to complain if you feel you have been treated unfairly or discriminated against due to your vulnerability.

Having a disability, serious illness, or poor mental health may mean you’re entitled to extra time or assistance to deal with bailiffs. Even if you don’t feel vulnerable, you could be given further support to ensure the debt recovery process is as straightforward and stress-free as possible.

Whether you’re over 65 or suffer from depression, don’t be afraid to seek expert debt advice tailored to your situation. There are several organisations and charities available, such as Citizens Advice, designed to answer any questions you may have about the debt recovery process.

Key Takeaways

Being in debt can lead to poor mental health and suffering from a mental health problem can make you more likely to end up in debt
You may be classed as vulnerable if you have a disability, are seriously ill, are a certain age, have poor mental health, are pregnant or a parent, or speak another language
You must contact a bailiff and let them you're vulnerable as soon as you receive a notice of enforcement
As a vulnerable person, bailiffs should never visit you when you're the only person home or threaten to seize items necessary for your mental or physical health
You have a right to complain to the bailiff and your creditor if an enforcement agent is acting in a way you consider unacceptable
Maxine McCreadie

Maxine McCreadie

Author/Debt Expert

Maxine McCreadie, prominent personal finance writer featured in Vogue and Yahoo News, delivers practical guidance, simplifying money management and championing financial literacy.

How we reviewed this article:


Our debt experts continually monitor the personal finance and debt industry, and we update our articles when new information becomes available.

Current Version

November 16 2023

Written by
Maxine McCreadie

Edited by
Ben McCormack

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