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Dealing with Bailiffs

A bailiff, also known as an “enforcement agent”, is someone who is instructed:

  • By a creditor to enforce a money debt or a fine.
  • By a landlord to carry out an eviction.
  • By a creditor to repossess goods under hire purchase or a conditional sale agreement to enforce an injunction.

They will have the power to take your possessions in order to sell them and give the money to your creditor to pay back the debt you owe. The court will only send the bailiff if you fail to maintain payments towards your County Court Judgement (CCJ).

If you are struggling with debt and worried about being threatened with bailiff action, or if you have received a letter from a bailiff and are now worried about what will happen next, you can get advice for free from PayPlan.

We will reassure you about your rights and provide confidential and objective advice about what you can do.

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What is a bailiff?

A bailiff is someone who works on behalf of the courts to collect debt. There are four types of bailiff who act differently according to the type of debt being collected:

  • Private: They can be self-employed, employed by a private firm or employed by another organisation. They will collect Council Tax arrears and unpaid parking fines for local authorities, and money owed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), but might be employed by any creditor to collect the debt.
  • County Court bailiff: They are directly employed by the County Court to collect unpaid CCJs and must follow guidelines laid down by the Lord Chancellor’s Department.
  • Sheriff / High Court Enforcement Officers: They are contracted by the High Court and work in geographical county areas. They work out of the local Sheriff’s Office under the control of an Under-Sheriff who is usually responsible for that area. If a creditor has a County Court Judgment of more than £600 (including court costs) they can transfer the judgment to the High Court for enforcement – unless it is a debt regulated by the Consumer Credit Act, as these can only be enforced through the County Court.
  • Magistrates Court bailiff: They work for the Magistrates Court and are responsible to the clerk of the court. They mainly deal with money owed in criminal offences.

The above are ‘certificated bailiffs’, which means they are granted a certificate following application to a County Court. To be granted a certificate they must satisfy the court that they are:

  • A ‘fit and proper person’ to hold a certificate and possesses sufficient knowledge of the law of distress,
  • and lodge in court a bond or deposit for £10,000 or have an insurance indemnity for this amount. A new security must be provided if the old security runs out or is reduced.

Remember: A debt collector is NOT a bailiff

Some collection agencies may threaten to send someone to your home if you refuse to pay them the amounts they request. As a representative of a Debt Collection Agency, they have no powers at all.

You do not need to speak to them if you do not wish to. If you are in any doubt, contact Payplan for clarification about a bailiff’s powers and free, impartial advice.

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When are they used?

Bailiffs can be instructed to seize goods from your home if you fail to pay your creditors and the debt has been passed to the courts to enforce (for example, CCJ has been granted). They can also be used to repossess your home or to enforce certain arrest warrants. 

Before any action is taken, bailiffs receive instruction by a warrant which specifies how much is owed.

They can seize goods for:

  • Council Tax arrears
  • Child support arrears
  • County or High Court debts
  • National insurance
  • VAT and tax debts

Do bailiffs have the right for power of entry?

In general, you do not have to let the bailiffs into your home or business, and they cannot enter your home between 9pm and 6am. They cannot use force to gain entry into a property on their first visit: they can only use “peaceable means”.

This means they can enter through a:

  • Door
  • Gate
  • Attached garage
  • Loading bay

However, they cannot get into your home via:

  • A window
  • Climbing over a wall or fence
  • Climbing a locked gate or barrier
  • Taking up floor boards

What happens when they gain peaceful entry?

Once the bailiff is inside your house after entering peacefully, they will firstly search your home. They will not take items on their first visit, but will make a list of what they intend to take and sell (this is called seizing).

Once in your house they have the right of access to all rooms and can use force to gain access into other parts of the property.

They can call again at a later date and enter your house without your permission, forcefully, to remove and impound your goods.

However, they can only seize and impound goods to cover the debt and their fees, nothing more. When seizing goods they must leave the premises safe.

Can a bailiff force entry?

The answer to this depends on the type of debt they are collecting and whether they have visited before. If they are collecting an unpaid CCJ and this is their first visit, then they cannot force entry. There are however certain situations where bailiffs can force entry, including:

  • Collecting unpaid fines:As a last resort they can force entry, whether they have been in your home before or not, if they have a Magistrates court warrant.
  • They have gained peaceful entry before:If they have been in your property before by means of peaceful entry, they can then force entry when they next visit if you do not allow them in.
  • County Court bailiffs entering a commercial property:They can only do this if there is no living accommodation attached. They need permission from the court to force entry into any commercial property.
  • Collecting income tax or VAT:They must also have permission from the court, for example a tax collector with a warrant from a Magistrates court, and they can only do this if they failed in a previous attempt at peaceful entry.
  • Following goods:Where entry was gained from a different property and made a levy, and they are now following the goods.

If you are worried about a bailiff forcing entry to your property and are expecting a visit, contact PayPlan for free advice.

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What can I do if I receive a notice to say a bailiff is coming to my house?

If you have received notification telling you a bailiff is going to call at your house, you may be able to negotiate some sort of repayment to the lender (your creditor) before they call.

Make sure you know who your creditor is because it’s possible your original creditor could have already sold the debt to a debt recovery agency.Alternatively you may be able to make an application to the court to suspend the bailiff’s action. If you cannot suspend the action, it may not be too late to make an offer to repay the debt over a period of time.

You can discuss this without letting the bailiff into your home, although you may feel awkward discussing such matters in public.

If you cannot afford to make an offer, your local CAB may be able to help by negotiating with the bailiff on your behalf. When you seek advice make sure you have all the necessary papers informing you of the bailiff action, as well as (if they have already visited) any documentation left by them.

If you know a bailiff is going to call, try to have a witness there and make sure you note down everything that is said or any of the powers they claim to have.

Is a bailiff coming to your house?

A bailiff can call at your house:

  • At any reasonable time to seize goods,
  • but they must give you at least 7 days’ notice of their first visit.

If you think a bailiff is going to call or may soon call at your house, be aware that you do not have to let them in if they’ve previously never gained entry to your home.

However, if you leave any doors or windows open they have the right to enter through them, so long as they use ‘peaceable’ means.

In practice, when a bailiff calls they are more likely to try to open your door, rather than knock on it (walking into your house unannounced may not be polite, but it is entry by peaceable means).

 This is the reason why you should close and lock all your doors and windows if you think you may be due a visit. Once they have gained entry, they may also force entry to any other parts of the premises.

Keeping the bailiffs out

In order to keep the bailiffs out, especially on their first visit:

  • Don’t open your door to them, use the door chain if you have one.
  • Don’t leave your windows or doors open when you know they are coming.
  • Inform family members who you live with about the visit to ensure they don’t let them in, otherwise this would count as peaceful entry.

If you have locked your door and then decide to open it to talk to the bailiff, you still do not have to let them in (if they have not previously entered). 

They may make an effort to enter, but if you stand your ground they are not permitted to force their way past you (although they are permitted to do so as a last resort if collecting unpaid criminal fines, Income Tax or VAT).

If you do refuse to let them in then they will be sure to return at some other time. This is a problem that will not just go away, and so in the long term you may want to seek help.

Contact PayPlan to get free advice about your options.

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What will happen if I am not home?

If you are not home then a bailiff will attempt to gain peaceful entry, if a family member is in, and may force entry if collecting unpaid fines of a criminal nature, VAT or if they have been before.

If it is their first visit and they are unable to force entry, they may look through your windows to make a list of goods they intend to seize and will leave a letter to say they have attempted a visit.

What rights do I have?

You cannot be sent to prison for not co-operating with a bailiff. You do not have to let them into your house and you should seek advice as soon as possible.

A bailiff must not threaten you illegally, force entry to your home (unless this is within their right because of the type of debt or if this is their second visit) or use offensive language.

If you are concerned about a bailiff’s behaviour, you can complain either to the creditor or to the court that sent them.

What documentation must they have with them?

Bailiffs are only entitled to seize your belongings when they have the appropriate written authority; for example, a warrant issued by a court or, in some cases, a creditor.

However, they do not need to present written proof of the court order, but will almost certainly have this with them, and you should ask them for this if you plan to pay them or let them into your house.

If you are able to pay the bailiff, or are willing to let them in to take your things, first make sure you ask to see:

  • Proof of their identity, e.g. a badge or ID
  • Detailed paperwork or breakdown of their charges

What if you can pay the bailiff?

If you have the money there is the option to pay the bailiff on the doorstep, and in this case, you still don’t have to invite them into your home. Make sure to get a receipt to prove you have paid what you owe.

What if you can’t pay the bailiff?

If you do not have the money to pay straight away, there is the option to speak to the bailiff about how you could pay the owed money back. It could be that you offer to pay a sum you can realistically afford in weekly or monthly payments.

However, they do not have to accept your offer. If you are in debt and expecting a visit from a bailiff, but are unable to pay your debts, contact PayPlan for free debt advice.

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What and whose items can be taken?

In theory, a bailiff can take pretty much anything with a resalable value from a domestic or business place.

They can take items that belong to the person who owes the money, even if they are jointly owned by the debtor and another person. If these goods are eventually sold, they must pay the other person their share of the money.

Which goods can’t a bailiff take?

There are some exceptions to what can be taken from your home:

  • A bailiff acting on a County Court Judgment cannot seize clothing, bedding, furniture, household equipment, fixtures and fittings, or other goods necessary to meet basic domestic needs.
  • In general, they cannot seize tools, books, vehicles or equipment necessary for personal use in employment, business or vocation. However, a bailiff acting for Poll Tax, Council Tax, VAT and Income Tax may be able to do so.
  • They cannot seize goods belonging to anyone other than the person named on the warrant. It will help to have receipts handy if you are stating the goods are yours, as the onus is on you to prove that you own the goods.
  • They cannot take any item that belongs to a family member, as long as they are not jointly owed, or your children.
  • They cannot seize goods subject to a hire purchase or rental agreement (goods on credit sale can be seized because they belong to the person).

Controlled Goods Agreement: Chance to repay what you owe

Goods may be taken away immediately, but what will usually happen is that the bailiff and the debtor will come to an agreement known as a “Controlled Goods Arrangement”. This was previously known as a Walking Possession Agreement.

This is a formal arrangement between you and a bailiff that gives you time to repay what you owe. This means you’re allowed to keep and use items listed on the Controlled Goods Arrangement, but you may not sell them because these items have been identified as items to be taken and sold at a later date in order to repay the outstanding debt.

This at least gives you a short amount of time in which to come to some repayment arrangement with whoever now owns your debt. If a bailiff has gained entry and the debtor does not want the goods to be removed immediately, this agreement has to be signed.

For a Controlled Goods Agreement to be valid the bailiff must have gained legal entry into your premises. They may not, as an example, list items on a Controlled Goods Arrangement they have spotted by looking in through a window. 

If you’re dealing with bailiff action that began before 6 April 2014, different rules may apply.

Contact PayPlan for specific advice about how best to move forward if you’re unsure about your rights.
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Suspending a bailiff’s action

If the bailiff is acting for a debt which has gone to either the county court or High Court, you can apply to the court to have the action suspended. Where the bailiff is acting on behalf of the county court you will need to fill in a special form entitled: N245 – Application to Suspend the Warrant.

You will need to complete the form and make an offer of payment. Instructions for how to complete it are clearly stated on the form itself. You should then send the form (along with the relevant fee) to your local county court. In the High Court you will need to apply for a Stay of Execution.

Contact a PayPlan adviser for further information on 0800 280 2816. If the bailiff is collecting other types of debt you should contact the creditor and ask that they withdraw the bailiff. Reaching an agreement to pay is a recommended course of action for anyone facing debt problems with creditors.

Making a complaint about bailiffs

If things go wrong, you can make a complaint. Perhaps the bailiff has seized the wrong goods, gained entry forcefully or illegally, or failed to produce the correct documents.

In these circumstances, there are ways of making a complaint. First of all, register your complaint and dissatisfaction with the bailiff’s firm.

If this does not resolve the complaint, you can take the complaint to the creditor for whom the bailiff is acting as an agent. Check to see if the creditor has a formal complaints procedure and any codes of practice.

If your complaint is not resolved

If the complaint is still not resolved you can take the matter to the bailiffs’ professional or trade organisation. All have the power to discipline the bailiff including exclusion from membership and they can award compensation.

If you choose to take your complaint to this level, we would recommend seeking professional advice.

You may consider taking action against the bailiff in the county court. Sometimes the issue of a claim can prompt the bailiff into settling without the need and expense of actually having to attend court. For more information, see Debt Collection Harassment.

Call PayPlan free on 0800 280 2816 or fill out our contact form for free advice about how to deal with bailiffs and any underlying debt issues you may have.