Can bailiffs force entry? Everything you need to know about bailiff action

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Overview:

This article will cover everything you need to know about bailiffs, including which debts bailiffs can collect and what to do when a bailiff knocks on your door.

If you have outstanding debt, your creditor (the individual or business you owe money to) can order bailiffs to visit you to collect the money owed or seize goods to repay the debt.

The thought of bailiffs visiting you can be daunting and your first reaction may be to panic and fear the worst. But while bailiffs have greater powers than creditors to collect unpaid debt, there are rules they must stick to and you have rights.

What is a bailiff?

The term ‘bailiff‘ was officially replaced by ‘enforcement officer’ in 2014, but bailiff is still more commonly used. So what is a bailiff and what do they do? Put simply, a bailiff is a legal officer appointed to recover unpaid debts, usually on behalf of a court or creditor.

When a bailiff visits you at your home or place of business, they will demand payment for the unpaid debt and, if that proves unsuccessful, make a list of goods to sell at auction to recover the money owed. This is called ‘taking control of goods’.

However, there are limitations to their powers and rules about what items they can take, what times they can visit, and how much force they can use. Understanding bailiff powers and limitations can help you recognise when you’re being treated unfairly or unlawfully.

Before a bailiff visits you, they must send you a ‘notice of enforcement’ giving you at least seven days’ notice to make payment or come to an agreement over how to repay the debt.

Are there different types of bailiffs?

The word ‘bailiff’ is typically used to refer to enforcement officers in general, but there are different types of bailiffs with different powers and limitations.

Here is a guide to the main types of bailiffs that operate in the UK and their duties and responsibilities:

County Court bailiff

County Court bailiffs can enforce court orders up to £5,000 that have been handed down by the County Court but primarily deal with unpaid County Court Judgments (CCJs).

They are employed by HM Court and Tribunals Service and report directly to the County Court Hearing Centre they work for.

High Court enforcement officer

High Court enforcement officers can enforce court orders over £600 that have been handed down by the High Court, including CCJs for debts of over £600.

They are authorised by the Lord Chancellor and usually work for private companies.

Certificated enforcement agent

Certificated enforcement agents are certified by the court but are not considered officers of the court.

This means that, while they don’t represent a specific legal body, they have the qualifications needed to collect unpaid debts under UK law.

There are other types of bailiffs that operate in the UK, such as a family court bailiff and a civilian enforcement officer, but they are much less common and tend to only deal with very specific legal cases.

Which debts can bailiffs collect?

Bailiffs can collect a wide range of debts, including:

  • Child maintenance arrears
  • Council tax arrears
  • Utility arrears
  • Rent arrears
  • Criminal fines
  • Parking fines
  • Court fines
  • CCJs

However, bailiffs can’t collect debts regulated by the Consumer Credit Act (1974), including:

  • Personal loans
  • Payday loans
  • Overdrafts
  • Credit cards
  • Catalogues

Is a bailiff the same as a debt collector?

The words ‘bailiff’ and ‘debt collector’ are often used interchangeably and while both can visit you to collect unpaid debt, they have very different roles and duties.

For example, debt collectors are not court-appointed officials and don’t have any legal powers to collect debt. This means they can’t enter your home and can only visit you to discuss how you plan to repay the debt.

However, because debt collectors aren’t expected to follow a formal process before they visit you to collect unpaid debt, they can turn up unannounced.

How should I respond to a bailiff letter?

Receiving a bailiff letter or an ‘enforcement notice’ informing you that bailiffs are visiting you can be worrying, but it’s important not to ignore it or wait too long to respond.

Responding to an enforcement notice promptly can give you a chance to make up for missed payments and avoid bailiff action altogether.

Check the letter is valid

The first thing you must do when you receive a bailiff letter is check the information provided is correct.

If the letter contains inaccurate or wrong information, you can make a complaint and request a new letter with the right information. This can give you more time to process the situation and decide how you’re going to respond.

For a bailiff letter to be valid, it must show your correct name and address, outline your total debt level, and tell you how long you have to respond before bailiffs visit (seven days).

Check if you owe the debt

Next, you must check you owe the amount being claimed. If you can prove the debt belongs to someone else with a similar name or you’ve already repaid the balance in full, for example, you can challenge the claim.

Even if you owe the debt, it might still be possible to dispute it. However, this can be a lengthy process and is unlikely to be sorted out within seven days so you may still be visited by bailiffs while your case is being dealt with.

If you can afford to repay the debt, the best option is to contact the bailiff (their contact details should be on the enforcement notice) and offer to make payment in full as soon as possible. This can put a stop to bailiff action before it begins and help you avoid extra fees.

Prepare for bailiff action

If you’ve received a bailiff letter and don’t make payment within seven days, it’s important to be prepared for what could happen next.

Remember, when a bailiff visits you, you don’t have to let them in and can deal with the situation by talking to them through the door or on the phone.

However, if you don’t come to an agreement over how to repay the debt or fail to comply, they will revisit at a later date. There is no limit to the number of times a bailiff can visit you and they may add extra fees if they have to visit several times before you agree to talk to them.

If you’re anticipating bailiff action, it can also be useful to gather all relevant documents and letters relating to the debt.

What items can bailiffs take?

When a bailiff visits you, they will demand full payment for the debt. If you can’t pay, they will make a list of potential goods they can sell at auction to recover the money owed.

They will then try to arrange a repayment schedule where you repay what you owe in regular instalments in exchange for being able to keep your belongings. This is known as a controlled goods agreement.

If you don’t pay or break the terms of the controlled goods agreement – which you and the bailiff must sign to be valid – they will return and take the goods listed in the agreement to sell at auction.

When listing goods, bailiffs will usually focus on high-value items that are likely to fetch a good price at auction, such as jewellery, electricals, and in some cases, vehicles. They can only list items they can physically recover and not just items they see through a window, for example.

Some of the items bailiffs must leave you with include:

  • White goods (e.g. cooker, microwave, fridge, washing machine)
  • Any goods owned outright by someone else (they can take jointly owned items)
  • Any goods purchased through a hire purchase agreement where the final payment hasn’t been made
  • Landlines and mobile phones
  • Beds and bedding that would leave anyone short
  • Tables and chairs that would leave anyone short
  • Heating and lighting appliances
  • Medical and care equipment
  • Pets and guide dogs
  • Equipment you need for work or study up to a total value of £1,350

Can a bailiff take my car?

When a bailiff is looking for goods to seize, a car is the first thing they will look for as it is likely to be the highest-value item you own and, in most cases, will be parked outside your house.

However, a bailiff can’t take your car if:

  • It is a mobility vehicle and has a blue badge on display
  • It is subject to a logbook loan or hire purchase agreement that hasn’t been repaid in full
  • You need it for your job (e.g. van or taxi) and it is worth less than £1,350
  • It is someone’s main home (e.g. campervan, caravan, or houseboat)

Bailiffs can only clamp your vehicle if they find it parked at your home or business, on a public road, or in a public car park.

If you are anticipating bailiff action, you can move your car somewhere safe temporarily, such as in a locked garage, on another street, or outside a friend or family member’s house.

What rights do bailiffs have?

Bailiffs have greater powers than debt collectors to recover unpaid debt, but they’re still governed by strict rules.

For example, they can’t just turn up at your door unannounced and seize goods. They must serve you with an enforcement notice at least seven days before they visit to give you a chance to repay the debt or come to an agreement over how to repay the debt.

They must also verify their identity when they visit you by showing you a valid ID or enforcement agent certificate, clearly stating the reason for their visit, and asking for permission to enter.

When a bailiff visits you, they must not:

  • Enter without permission
  • Force entry (unless collecting a fine on behalf of the Magistrates Court or seizing goods after a breach of a controlled goods agreement)
  • Enter if the only person home is under the age of 16 or disabled
  • Visit your home between the hours of 9pm and 6am or on public holidays

Can bailiff force entry into my home?

One of the most common questions about bailiffs is whether they can force entry into your home, but the answer depends on the type of debt being collected.

For example, if the debt is related to unpaid criminal fines, a breach of a controlled goods agreement, or a debt owed to HMRC, a bailiff has the right to use reasonable force to enter your home and seize goods. Bailiffs can also force entry to your business premises – even if they haven’t visited you before or written a list of goods.

For any other type of debt, a bailiff can’t force entry unless they have gained peaceful entry before or there is an open window or unlocked door. This is why you should always aim to comply with bailiffs on their first visit and keep all entryways closed and locked if you are expecting bailiff action.

Bailiffs are also not allowed to push past you to gain entry into your home, block a door with their foot to prevent you from closing it or use a locksmith to unlock a door (unless they have a warrant).

Can I refuse a bailiff entry?

When a bailiff visits you, you don’t have to let them in and are within your right to refuse them entry.

Some bailiffs will lie and say you have to let them in or make full payment on your doorstep, but this isn’t true. They must respect your wishes and leave peacefully.

However, if you don’t let a bailiff in or refuse to comply, they will usually keep visiting until they are able to talk to you about the debt and may increase their intimidation tactics in an attempt to get you to pay. When this happens, they can also add extra fees to your debt.

Can bailiffs force entry when I’m not there?

If you’re expecting bailiff action, you may be wondering whether they can enter your home when you’re not there. The answer is yes, but only if you make it easy for them to enter by leaving a door unlocked, leaving a key in the door, or if someone lets them in, for example.

They can’t try to gain access by asking for your landlord’s key or using a key they found under a doormat as this would be classed as unlawful entry.

If you’re worried about bailiffs entering your home when you’re not there, you must ensure all entryways are firmly locked and secured at all times – especially if you live with other people.

What do I do if a bailiff visits my home looking for someone else?

Because a bailiff will usually visit the last known address of the individual they are looking for, it’s not unheard of for an enforcement officer to knock on a door looking for someone else, such as a previous tenant.

However, a bailiff is not legally allowed to seize goods from a home that is not the property of the debtor and as long as you can prove you are not the individual they are looking for, your belongings will be protected.

The documents you can use to prove your identity include:

  • ID (e.g. passport or driving licence)
  • Tenancy agreement
  • Unopened letters addressed to the previous tenant
  • Any logbooks or hire purchase agreements proving the car parked outside is yours and can’t be seized

Conclusion

If you have unpaid debt, your creditor may hire bailiffs with greater legal powers to recover the money owed or seize goods to repay the debt. When this happens, they will write to you providing seven days’ notice of their intention to visit.

There are different types of bailiffs that operate in the UK, from County Court bailiffs to civilian enforcement officers, each with their own duties and responsibilities depending on who they work for and the type of debt being collected.

Understanding your rights is key to navigating bailiff action effectively and recognising when you are being treated unfairly or unlawfully. If a bailiff has broken the rules, you are within your right to make a complaint.

If you are worried about bailiff action, don’t suffer in silence. Even if you can’t afford to repay the debt in full, most bailiffs will let you keep your belongings if you agree to repay the debt in regular instalments.

Key Takeaways

Bailiffs can be hired to collect an unpaid debt, such as a County Court Judgment, on behalf of a creditor, but there are strict rules they must follow when they visit you at your home or place of business
There are different types of bailiffs, each with their own powers and limitations
Bailiffs can only force entry under certain circumstances and must serve you with an enforcement notice at least seven days before they visit
When a bailiff visits you, you don't have to let them in but they will continue visiting until you repay the debt
Bailiffs can only enter your home when you're not there if you leave a door unlocked
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:

HISTORY

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

Current Version

October 17 2023

Written by
Maxine McCreadie

Edited by
Ben McCormack

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