New rules set to curb aggressive bailiffs

By Emma Lunn

When you're in debt and won't (or can't) pay it off, your creditors may send bailiffs to seize your belongings. It's a difficult situation for all involved and, sometimes, particularly aggressive bailiffs can turn an uncomfortable situation into a threatening one.

The government has therefore announced new laws which aim to tackle aggressive bailiff behaviour, with revised rules about what they can and cannot do when visiting a debtor's home. These rules will go into effect next year.

What is a bailiff?
A bailiff is someone whose job it is to remove possessions of those who owe money. This differentiates them from regular debt collectors, who cannot enter a debtor's house and seize property. The possessions are then sold, and the money is used to pay back the debt. dealing with bailiff

There are several types of bailiffs. Some work for the courts and are tasked with collecting money owed after a county court judgment, unpaid taxes or unpaid traffic fines. Others are private bailiffs, who are self-employed or employed by private firms. They are hired by creditors (landlords, for example) and sometimes local governments. The creditor will then be required to pay the bailiff (or the bailiff's firm) a commission on the amount collected (or on the amount made from the sales of the debtor's belongings).

Bailiffs need to be certified by the county court. Plus, depending on the type of debt they are collecting, they need either a liability order from the local authority, or a warrant of execution from the court before they can confiscate your belongings.

The new rules
Under the new rules, announced in January 2013, bailiffs will be banned from entering homes at night and from entering homes where only children are present. They will also be unable to use any physical contact when dealing with people who owe money. Although threatening behaviour is already outlawed for bailiffs, current laws do not spell out these terms.

Another key change is that bailiff companies will no longer be able to fix their own fees. In addition to the commissions they earn, bailiffs can charge debtors for everything from visits, to removal and transport of belongings, to auctioning costs. Even if the debtor decides to pay off the original debt, he'll still owe the bailiff those fees. The new rules require set fee scales that will regulate these charges.

Lukewarm reactions
The new regime, which will be introduced in 2014, comes after many debtors and debt charities have complained about aggressive bailiff behaviour. However, although the rules were generally welcomed by debt charities, some feared they don't go far enough.

"There remains no independent oversight of the bailiff industry, no independent complaints body to make it easy for people to report bad practice, and no clear sanctions for bailiffs who break the rules," said Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, in a statement. "Additionally, there is no clarity that the new fee structure will not increase what bailiffs can charge people in debt."

Similarly, debt charity StepChange would have liked to see more oversight in the new rules. In a news release, it called for independent regulation and an independent dispute resolution process to make sure complaints about bailiffs are fairly heard. It also called for a clear way to stop unnecessary bailiff action for someone making every effort to pay off their debts

"Financially vulnerable debtors will continue to face unnecessary hardship and undue stress if there is not independent oversight of bailiffs," said Delroy Corinaldi, StepChange's external affairs director, in a statement. "Without a clear standard on affordable repayments and independent oversight of firms, the new fee structure may in fact add to the problems some of our clients face."

As for the bailiff industry, some welcome the changes. In fact, the new rules might improve the public's perception of bailiffs, Paul Caddy, president of the Civil Enforcement Association (which represents private certificated bailiffs in England and Wales), told Yahoo News. Instead of affecting good bailiffs, the new rules will simply prevent the bad apples from tarnishing the reputation of those striving to do their difficult jobs as best they can, he said.

Your rights when bailiffs visit
Even before the new rules go into effect, current laws do much to regulate bailiff's abilities to collect your belongings. Here are your rights when dealing with bailiffs:

  • Bailiffs should visit your property only as a last resort. When the debt gets passed to the bailiffs, you will receive notice in writing.
  • You can stop bailiffs from visiting your home by paying the money you owe.
  • In most cases, you don't have to open your front door to bailiffs or let them in, and they're not allowed to force their way into your home. However, they can gain "peaceful entry" through an open window, according to the Citizens Advice Bureau.
  • If you don't let them in or pay your debts, bailiffs can charge you fees for the visit itself, which will add to your debt. However, there are limits to how many visits they can charge you for, depending on the type of debt they're attempting to collect.
  • If you let bailiffs in, they are likely to take some of your belongings, such as TVs or gaming consoles to repay your debts. However, they are not allowed to take necessities, such as furniture, clothes, cookers or fridges, or tools you need for your work. They also can't take goods that don't belong to you -- but you'll need to prove someone else owns the item.
  • There are a few situations in which bailiffs are allowed to force their way into a property. These include when they are collecting unpaid criminal fines, income tax or value added tax (VAT), according to the Citizens Advice Bureau.

See related: Debt relief orders: A lifeline, but not an easy way out; A guide to the bankruptcy process

Published: 21 February 2013