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know your rights with bailiffs

Bailiff guide | Information about Bailiffs

A visit from a bailiff or an enforcement officer can be a very frightening and distressing experience. This guide explains what a bailiff or enforcement officer can and cannot do if they visit your home and what your rights are. It provides general information only.

What is a bailiff?

Bailiffs and enforcement officers are authorised to remove and sell a person’s possessions in order to pay money owed to a person or organisation i.e. to a creditor (A creditor is someone you owe money to). In some cases they may also have the authority to conduct evictions and to arrest people.

There are four main types of bailiff.

  • County court Bailiffs
    • County court bailiffs are employed by the county courts and they enforce county court orders by recovering money owed under a county court judgment. They can seize and sell goods to recover the amount of the debt. They can also take possession of property and supervise the return of goods under hire purchase agreements and they can serve court documents.
  • Enforcement Officers
    • Enforcement officers are similar to county court bailiffs except that they deal with high court judgments or county court judgments transferred to the High Court.
  • Certificated Bailiffs
    • Certificated bailiffs enforce various debts on behalf of bodies such as local authorities, seizing and selling goods to recover the amount of the debt. They hold a certificate which enables them to levy distress for rent, road traffic debts, council tax and non-domestic rates. They cannot enforce the collection of debts due under High Court or county court orders.
  • Non-certificated Bailiffs
    • Non-certificated bailiffs can recover money owed for a variety of debts but cannot levy distress for rent, road traffic debts, council tax and non domestic rates and they cannot enforce the collection of money due under county court or High Court orders.

Different types of bailiffs have differing powers to collect debts. However, there are certain rules that apply to all bailiffs. Unless stated otherwise, this information applies to any bailiff.

Can anyone be a bailiff?

Any man or woman can be a bailiff, providing they have legal authority to carry out their actions. Some creditors prefer to use certificated bailiffs to collect their debts. ''Certificated'' means that the firm of bailiffs has provided references to the county court and the bailiffs they employ are considered to be 'fit and proper' persons. Bailiffs collecting rent arrears and road traffic penalties must be certificated.

What 'legal authority' must a bailiff have?

A bailiff must be legally authorised to collect the debt on behalf of the creditor. The authority is normally known as a 'warrant', or 'warrant of execution' if the bailiff is recovering money owed under a county court judgment.

Bailiffs used by the magistrates court to collect unpaid council tax, outstanding fines, compensation or unpaid maintenance will be acting on either a 'distress warrant' or a 'liability order' issued by the magistrates court.

If you are in arrears, creditors will sometimes send representatives to your home to try and negotiate repayments with you. These people might be called 'counsellors', 'collectors' or 'advisers'. They do not have powers to enter your home and seize your goods.

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How do I know if it is a bailiff at my door?

Bailiffs should provide identification or authorisation if you ask them to. Bailiffs collecting for rent must show their certificate from the county court if you ask them to. Bailiffs collecting unpaid council tax must show written authorisation from the local authority. From 1 April 1998, local authorities must send you a letter giving fourteen days notice of a proposed bailiff visit to collect council tax. County court bailiffs must issue a warning notice allowing seven days for you to pay.

See also 'Will I get advance notice of a bailiff visit?'

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Can a bailiff call anytime, including evenings and weekends?

The National Standards for Enforcement Agents recommends that enforcement should not be undertaken on Sundays, on Good Friday or on Christmas Day unless the court specifically orders otherwise or in situations where legislation permits it.
It also recommends that enforcement should only be carried out between the hours of 6.00 a.m. and 9.00 p.m. or at any time during trading hours and that existing legislation must be observed with enforcement agents being respectful of the religion and culture of others at all times. They should be aware of the dates of religious festivals and carefully consider the appropriateness of undertaking enforcement on any day of religious or cultural observance or during any major religious or cultural festival.

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Can a bailiff force entry into my home?

Most bailiffs do not have the right to force their way into a domestic property, i.e. a flat or a house, to seize your goods. The only exception is that bailiffs from HMRC can get a warrant to force entry, but this is very rare.

All other bailiffs have a right of peaceful entry only. This means that they cannot use force to enter your home, for example, by breaking a window or a door. However, they can enter your property through an open door or window (front and back) and can climb over fences and gates, but cannot break them down.

You do not have to let a bailiff into your house.
A bailiff cannot force their way past you if you answer the door.
If all your doors and windows are securely closed they will not be able to gain peaceful entry to your house unless you let them in.

Bailiffs are well aware of their limited powers and may use a variety of different means to gain entry peaceably. They may attempt to walk in as soon as a door is opened. They may ask if they can use your telephone to check if an arrangement is satisfactory with their office. They may simply ask you if you would prefer to discuss matters inside. You do not have to go along with any of these methods.

See also ''If a bailiff does gain peaceful entry to my house, what will they do?''

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Can I be arrested or imprisoned for not letting a bailiff into my house?

No. If a bailiff is accompanied by the police, they are only there to prevent a breach of the peace. You cannot be arrested for refusing to allow a bailiff into your home.

You cannot be imprisoned for not paying your debts. However, non-payment of council tax, child maintenance or magistrates court fines can lead to imprisonment if you 'wilfully refuse' to pay. This means that the magistrates must be satisfied that you have the money but choose not to pay. You should be required to attend a magistrates court ‘means enquiry hearing’ before this is decided. This gives you the chance to explain why you have not paid.

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If a bailiff does gain peaceful entry to my house what will they do?

Once they have gained entry to your home, a bailiff will usually try to find and seize any goods of value belonging to the person who owes the debt or who is named on the warrant.

Once in the house the bailiff has the right to go into all rooms and can break open any locked door or cupboard inside your house. If the bailiff gains peaceful entry once, they have the right to call again and enter even without your permission, i.e. they can break in and remove your goods on any subsequent visits.
Any attempt to remove a bailiff from your property once they have gained peaceful entry is assault and you could be taken to court for it.
Once in the house, a bailiff will attempt to seize your goods in order to sell them off at public auction to raise money to pay the debt that you owe. The bailiff will make clear an intention to seize various items, either verbally, or by attaching a mark to them, or by touching them. This is sometimes called ‘levying distress or distraining upon goods’.

Once the bailiff has seized goods, they have a number of options. They can either remove items they have seized immediately from the property to be stored and eventually sold at public auction. Alternatively, they can leave someone on the premises to guard the items that have been seized or, in the case of bailiffs collecting rent, secure items that have been seized in your home. These last two options are very rarely used.

The most likely outcome is that the bailiff will ask you to sign a 'walking possession agreement'.

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What is a walking possession agreement?

A walking possession agreement means that the goods that have been seized now legally belong to the bailiff and can be removed at any time. However, the bailiff may allow them to remain in your home and you can continue to use them providing you keep your side of the agreement, e.g. you make agreed payments.

In order for a walking possession order to be valid, a bailiff should have gained peaceful entry to the property and seized the goods. It is not enough for a bailiff to list items that they have seen through a window and push a walking possession order through the letterbox for you to sign and return. You should never sign a walking possession order in these circumstances. There is a daily charge for a walking possession order that you must pay, on top of the original debt you owe if they are sold. Remember that goods will be sold at public auction and can sell for as little as perhaps 10% of their original value. This means that if you owe £50, a bailiff may try to seize goods to the value of at least £500.

A bailiff must only seize goods that belong to the person who owes the money, although any goods in the house can be seized for distress or rent. In practice, many bailiffs will attempt to seize any goods of value at a house they visit and it will be up to the individual to prove ownership afterwards. If you have receipts showing someone else bought the goods then you should show these to the bailiff.

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Are there any goods that a bailiff cannot seize?

Bailiffs (except bailiffs acting on behalf of the magistrate's court - see below) cannot seize the following goods:

  • tools, goods, vehicles and other items of equipment necessary for use by you in your employment, business or vocation;
  • clothing, bedding, furniture, household equipment and provisions as are necessary for satisfying the basic domestic needs of you and your family

Bailiffs acting on behalf of the magistrates' court cannot seize the following goods:

  • clothing, beds and bedding, tools of the trade
  • basic domestic needs of the family; This would normally include fridge, cookers, freezers, but may not include video recorders, second TV's, jewellery, washing machines, stereos or microwave cookers

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Can I hide goods?

It is not unlawful for you to remove goods or hide them before a bailiff visits your home unless the bailiff is distraining for rent. Remember that a bailiff, having gained peaceful entry, can return at any time and if they believe that goods have been removed or hidden prior to their visit, this is likely to happen.

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What if the bailiff seizes goods that do not belong to me?

If a bailiff seizes goods that are subject to a Hire Purchase agreement, seek advice urgently. Goods on HP do not belong to you until you make the final payment, but there may be circumstances in which they can be seized.

If goods have been seized wrongfully, then the owner of the goods can apply for them to be returned. You will need to get further advice about this.

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Do I have to pay bailiffs fees?

The fees that bailiffs can charge for recovering money vary. There are fixed fees for bailiffs collecting council tax. All bailiffs’ fees (with the exception of magistrates' court bailiffs) can be looked at by the county court to see if they are reasonable or excessive. This is known as 'detailed assessment'. If you think that the bailiff's fees are excessive you should get further advice about this.

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What should I do if a bailiff is coming to my home?

Remember you do not have to let a bailiff into your house or flat. If you make sure that all doors and windows are locked, the bailiff will not be able to gain access to your home. If they cannot get in, they cannot lawfully seize goods. A bailiff may call a number of times to try and gain entry. Eventually they will return the warrant to the court or local authority if they are unable to gain entry, or you do not have enough goods to pay off the debt and fees.

Secondly, get the matter out of the hands of the bailiff and back to the county court, local authority or creditor. The next paragraph tells you how to do this.

If the debt is an unpaid county court judgment you can apply to the court to stop (''suspend'') the warrant and vary the instalments you were ordered to pay by the court. You can apply to do this on form N245, available from the court. The form asks for details of your income and outgoings with a few personal details such as whether you work. You may have to pay a small fee at the court, unless you are getting income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance or tax credits and you may have to show proof that you are receiving these benefits.

The fee can also be waived if you are on a low income and payment of the fee would involve undue financial hardship. Applications for a fee reduction or waiver are dealt with entirely on an individual basis according to circumstance and there are no precise guidelines about when a fee should or should not be reduced or waived. In either case you must complete Form Ex160 and send or take it to the court with the N245.

Some county courts may refuse to suspend a warrant of execution until a walking possession agreement has been signed.

If bailiffs are collecting unpaid council tax it is often difficult to negotiate instalment payments with the bailiff or the local authority until the warrant is returned or withdrawn from the bailiff. However, you should try to negotiate instalment payments with the local authority and encourage them to withdraw the warrant from the bailiff. It is important to make clear that although you are unwilling to let the bailiff in, you are willing to make instalment payments at a rate that you can afford.

If you need help filling in forms or negotiating with creditors or bailiffs, see the 'further help' section below.

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National Standards for Enforcement Agents

In January 2012, the Ministry of Justice, following its review of bailiff law, published an updated version of its report National Standards for Enforcement Agents (NSEA).

While the document is not legally binding it does set out what the Ministry of Justice regards as minimum standards, which it believes reflects the attitude of those in the industry and some major users.

The NSEA is endorsed by a range of central and local government departments and the bailiffs' trade bodies, all of whose members should comply with it.

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Enforcement agents should:

  • Carry out their duties in a professional, calm and dignified manner. This includes dressing appropriately and acting with discretion and fairness;
  • Act within the law at all times, including all defined legislation and observe all health and safety requirements in carrying out enforcement;
  • Maintain strict client confidentiality and comply with Data Protection legislation and the Freedom of Information Act, where appropriate;
  • Not be deceitful by misrepresenting their powers, qualifications, capacities, experience or abilities including but not restricted to falsely implying or stating that action can or will be taken when legally it cannot be taken or falsely implying or stating that a particular course of action will ensue before it is possible to know whether such action would be permissible or falsely implying or stating that action has been taken when it has not;
  • Not discriminate unfairly on any grounds including those of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, race, religion or sexual orientation;
  • Not act in any way likely to be publicly embarrassing to the debtor, either deliberately or negligently;
  • Always produce relevant identification to the debtor, such as a badge or ID card, together with any written authorisation to act on behalf of the creditor;
  • Not act in a threatening manner when visiting the debtor by making gestures or taking actions which could reasonably be construed as suggesting harm or risk of harm to debtors;
  • For the purposes of distress or execution, without the use of unlawful force, gain access to the goods and produce an inventory of the goods seized and leave it with the debtor, or at the premises, together with any other documents that are required by regulations or statute;
  • Undertake a risk assessment prior to attending a debtor’s premises, where there have been previous acts of, or threats of violence by a debtor or where the enforcement agency requires it.

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The conduct of levies

  • 'Unlawful force' should not be used to enter any premises;
  • If the Police are called to deal with a breach of the peace, their presence must be explained including that they are not there to help with the levy;
  • If the only person present is or appears to be under 18, the agent must depart, but may ask when the debtor will be home. If the only persons at home are children under the age of 12, the agent must simply leave;
  • Bailiffs should avoid so far as is practicable avoid disclosing the purpose of their visit to anyone who is not the debtor. Relevant documents should be left in a sealed envelope addressed to the debtor;
  • Visits should ideally only be made between 6am and 9pm (or any time that the debtor is conducting business). Visits should not take place on Sundays, Bank Holidays, Good Friday or Christmas Day, unless legislation or a court permits this. Respect for other religions and cultures should be upheld, and visits avoided on appropriate festivals and holidays;
  • Goods that are clearly those of a child should not be seized;
  • Bailiffs should take all reasonable steps to satisfy themselves that the value of goods seized is proportional to the debt and charges owing;
  • When goods are removed, receipts should be given to the debtor;
  • Debtors must be notified of fees on each visit and of the fees that will be incurred if further action takes place;
  • Copies of the NSEA should be available from the offices of the agencies, from the agents on request and if possible from the creditors themselves;
  • There are no sanctions for non-compliance with NSEA but agents are required to operate complaints and disciplinary procedures.

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Vulnerable persons and situations and other issues

The NSEA document sets out its recommendations in relation to the minimum standards it expects to be applied in situations where vulnerable persons are exposed to enforcement processes. It also sets out standards in relation to the responsibilities of creditors to both enforcement agencies and to debtors, the training, certification, statutory and financial requirements for enforcement agencies and mandatory complaints procedures of enforcement agencies.

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