What can bailiffs do to you?
If you're in the unfortunate position of facing a visit from the bailiffs, make sure you know your rights.
There are different kinds of bailiffs. In England and Wales there are bailiffs and enforcement officers. In Scotland they're known as sheriff officers and messengers-at-arms (although the latter are also sheriff officers). But, for the purposes of this article, let's just call them all bailiffs. So what can they do to you?
Note that a different system operates in Northern Ireland and there's more information about this at the nidirect website.
If your creditor sends a representative to your door
It's important to distinguish between a bailiff, who has authority from a court, and a creditor's representative or debt collector, who doesn't. (A 'creditor' is a person, company or council that you owe money to.)
If you have a visitor, ask to see their ID and their warrant from the court. Only a bailiff will have a warrant. If it's merely a company representative or debt collector, you're not obliged to let them in and they don't have the right to enter your home.
If they won't take no for an answer, tell them that you have asked them to leave and if they remain then they are trespassing and you will call the police. If they remain, do so.
This time it is a bailiff at the door. What can they do?
If your creditor gets a court order, the judge can authorise bailiffs to visit and attempt to collect the debt. (In Scotland, a judge doesn't need to authorise bailiff visits for council debts.) You will know if you can expect bailiffs, because you should have received notice in writing.
If they call and you are not in, they will generally leave you a letter to say they have been and will leave you a number to call them on. You should call them and try to make an arrangement to pay the debt.
What can they take?
Bailiffs can take non-essential items, but they can't take essentials such as your oven, fridge, clothes, most furniture and reasonable tools of trade. They can take items such as TVs, DVD players, games consoles and possessions outside your home, such as your car, garden furniture and shed contents. What bailiffs can't take is set out by statute (law).
Can they force their way in?
In England and Wales, the basic rule is that unless the debt that you owe is a Crown debt (such as an unpaid fine, Income Tax or VAT), a bailiff does not have a right to force entry.
However, there are exceptions. If you're behind with your rent or mortgage payments, your landlord or mortgage lender may get a court order to evict you. In this situation, the bailiffs are allowed to break into your home.
You're not obliged to invite the baliffs in and if they try to force their way in, you should call the police. You should try and pay something (make sure you get a receipt if you do) or offer to pay them in future.
Be warned: some enforcement officers have produced a piece of paper, saying something along the lines of "OK, if you just sign this to say I can't come in, I'll go". What they will be asking you to sign is a walking possession order. If you sign this, then they can return at a later time and they can force entry then.
In Scotland, if a sheriff officer has authority from a court to enter your home you are breaking the law by refusing to let them in. In these circumstances, they can use 'necessary reasonable force' to enter.
Experiences reported by lovemoney.com users in England and Wales include bailiffs:
- Peering through windows to log your possessions
- Entering through open windows and unlocked doors, and scaling walls
- Taking vehicles
- Attempting to 'befriend' you, or asking to borrow your phone
These are all tricks to gain entry. Once inside, they can force their way into the home next time they visit.
What you should do
- Contact your creditors before bailiffs get involved, if possible. Offer them something, but no more than you can afford, regardless of how little that is. Always follow-up phone calls with your offer in writing.
If you live in England or Wales:
- Don't answer the door to bailiffs. Ask them to leave their card and say you will make an offer in writing.
- Keep your curtains and windows shut, and your car parked away from your property.
- If you get a court summons, always attend to get your case across. If you've made a reasonable offer within your means and kept written evidence of this, the judge may even reduce what you have offered to penalise the creditor for wasting the court's time.
This article was compiled with help from lovemoney user SON1C