Dealing with bailiffs can be a highly stressful experience. On top of the financial burden that’s weighing you down, there’s also the added stress of a stranger turning up at your door making demands, trying to repossess your property, or forcing you to sign complex paperwork.
With this in mind, here are some tips and useful advice that should help you to deal with bailiffs more effectively. With a little background knowledge of your rights, and those of the enforcement agents, you’ll be able to confidently tell them what they can and can’t do. Before we go into too much detail, it’s probably best to outline some of the general rules that apply to bailiffs and govern their conduct.
More formally known as enforcement agents, bailiffs are authorised to work on behalf of a creditor. If you have council tax arrears, a local council may authorise a bailiff to visit your home to try and recuperate this money. These certificated agents are part of a private company, and need to carry a ‘distress warrant’ or ‘liability order’.
A bailiff can come to your home after receiving authorisation from a court or creditor. This authorisation could come in the form of a court order, warrant of control, or writ of control. On the warrant there will be the name of a bailiff who has been authorised to act on behalf of the creditor. So if a different bailiff turns up at your door — or they can’t prove their identity — then you can refuse them entry and make a complaint to either the creditor or the firm that sent out the enforcement officer. In most cases, bailiffs don’t have the right to force entry. There are some specific exceptions, such as collection of income tax or VAT.
If you’re having difficulties and think the bailiff has acted beyond their authority, you can seek help from the Citizens Advice Bureau. You can also make a direct complaint to the creditor that’s given the bailiff instruction. You can also complain to a trade association like the Certificated Bailiffs Association (CBA) or the Association of Civil Enforcement Agencies (ACEA).
If an enforcement officer has unlawfully forced entry into your home, you may also be able to make a complaint to the police or one of the professional bodies above. You could also take court action to get your goods back.
While knowing what a bailiff is and how they have the right to pursue you for the recovery of certain debts, such as council tax arrears, is useful it is still important to familiarise yourself on your own rights, and be aware of exactly how you should be dealing with a bailiff who turns up at your door. To help you deal with this situation we have compiled a list of what you need to know and how you should react to a bailiff arriving at your door. So, here are our tips on how best to handle bailiffs:
Ask to see authorisation: when prompted, they have to show this to you. You can ask to see a badge, ID card or enforcement agent certificate that proves who they are. Further to this, you can ask for the following: the name of the company on whose behalf they’re working, a contact telephone number, and a detailed breakdown of the amount owed. They can show you this without you letting them in — get them to push it through the letterbox or alternatively hold it up to a window. When shown the authorisation, double check that the name, address and amount owed is correct, and that the warrant is still in date.
Most bailiffs that turn up at your door won’t have the right to enter your home. The only circumstance where this isn’t the case is if they hold a court order. Generally, these are highly unlikely for a council tax debt. Enforcement agents are only permitted to force entry into your home in order to collect unpaid criminal fines, Income Tax or Stamp Duty, and solely as a last resort. However, if you do let a bailiff into your home, then on following visits they will be allowed to force entry.
Whatever they say, you don’t have to allow them entry to your home. Equally, don’t let them push past you to get in, or to gain access through anything other than the door (they might try to climb in a window for example). They’re also not permitted to come to your home between the hours of 9pm and 6am, and they can’t visit you if only a child or a vulnerable person (eg someone with a disability) is present. If they do turn up outside the permitted times, or show up on Sunday, a bank holiday, or even on particular religious holidays, this could count as harassment.
Be extra vigilant if you’ve received a letter of enforcement and are expecting a visit. A bailiff can, in most circumstances, enter your home ‘peacefully’. This means you either need to invite them in, or they can get into your home by climbing over things to access open doors or windows.
It’s very important to remember that once a bailiff has entered your property the first time, they have the right to force entry on subsequent visits (meaning they can come back and break in or break into locked rooms after entering ‘peacefully’). So make sure all windows and doors are securely shut if you’re expecting a visit, and be careful of clever wording and manipulation: a bailiff could trick you by asking to continue the conversation indoors, or asking to use your phone. But don’t forget — you have the right to say no.
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If you do choose to let them into your home, you should be aware of what they can and can’t take. Bailiffs are allowed to take some, but by no means all, of your belongings. They can’t take essential items like your cooker, fridge or your clothes. This covers things you need in order to work such as a personal computer. They’re not allowed to take work tools or equipment that costs less than £1,350 in total either, and can’t take goods that don’t belong to you — but you’ll need to prove that these items aren’t yours. They’re not allowed to take children’s belongings or hire items such as a car, or items that are still being paid for. In reality, bailiffs could take any goods, leaving it to you to prove that these items belong to someone else or are still being paid for.
What they can take are non-essential or luxury items, such as a TV, games console, or anything kept outside such as a car. They can also force their way into other buildings on your property such as a detached garage or garden shed, if they’re not directly attached to your home. If you live in a flat, they can break down your door once they’ve gained access through the main front door.
The likelihood is the bailiff will make a note of all your belongings they have seized, and will ask you to sign a ‘walking possession agreement’ to take legal control of these items. This means they’re permitted to return to collect the goods, even by breaking in. If you refuse to sign the agreement, the bailiffs can remove the items there and then.
Once taken, there’s normally a five-day period before the goods are sold (generally by public auction). The money raised from the sale of these items is used to pay off your debt and pay the bailiffs’ charges — any remaining money must be given back to you.
Normally bailiffs will attempt to visit you several times to attempt to get into your property. If the don’t manage to do this, it’s likely they will refer your debt back to the creditor, who may then take further legal action.
The bailiff may also post a ‘statement of means’ through your letterbox, asking you to give details of your income and expenditure. They will give this to the court, who will use this information to work out a monthly payment schedule. While you’re not legally obliged to complete this form, the court may take this as evidence of an unwillingness to pay.