The truth about bailiffs
We take a look at how much power bailiffs really have and what you can do if you have a complaint against them...
If you have fallen behind with payments following a county court judgment (CCJ), your creditor may ask the court to use bailiffs to collect the debt.
You will receive a document titled ‘warrant of execution’ and then a county court bailiff will visit you.
A creditor can sometimes enforce a CCJ through the high court, or obtain the judgment itself there, which could mean the subsequent involvement of private bailiffs or high court enforcement officers.
They may visit you for unpaid magistrates’ court fines, council tax arrears or other high court enforcement issues. Their powers are different to county court bailiffs and their charges are higher. Many creditors consider them more effective than county court bailiffs.
When can a bailiff force entry into my home?
- A bailiff has the power to take goods from your property and sell them at auction to settle your debts
- A bailiff cannot break into your property unless you have already allowed them in or they entered through an unlocked door or window on a previous visit; this is called ‘walk in possession’
- Once the bailiff has ‘walk in possession’ they can use force to enter again in future
- Bailiffs will not take goods on their first visit; they will usually make a list of items which they can take in future
- Once a list is made, it is an offence to remove any of these items from your house
There are only two instances where bailiffs can enter your property forcibly on their first visit:
- When a magistrate gives permission in cases where someone has avoided paying a criminal fine
- When bailiffs are acting for HM Revenue & Customs collecting tax, VAT or national insurance debt
Can I stop bailiff action after it has been authorised?
You can try to stop bailiff action by making an offer of payment to your creditor, if this has since become an option.
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You can also apply for a ‘stay of execution’ if the court starts enforcement action. To do this in the high court is more complicated than the county court. There is a fee to be paid and a hearing is required.
If you have had a letter or visit from a high court enforcement officer, you should get specialist legal help. Community Legal Advice is a good service to approach.
Law centres are also found in many larger towns, and offer free advice from qualified solicitors or barristers. The Law Centres Federation can help you find your nearest centre.
Complaints against bailiffs
- Any allegations of violence should be reported to the police as a criminal offence
- For county court bailiffs complaints, write to the court involved
- For local authority bailiff complaints, contact your local authority
- Private bailiff complaints should first be made to their company
- Most bailiffs are members of a trade organisation, such as the Enforcement Services Association and Association of Civil Enforcement Agencies, so they can investigate using their complaints procedures
The Ministry of Justice had planned to consult on the powers of bailiffs earlier this year, with a view to amending the Tribunals Courts and Enforcement Act. The consultation has not surfaced yet, but may go ahead at a later date.
Interestingly, in the immediate run up to the general election in early May, David Cameron pledged that, if elected, the Conservatives would abolish the powers of bailiffs and council tax inspectors to enter people’s homes.
Now that a coalition government exists, policy is less clear cut, but the possibility remains of government action against bailiff malpractice.