If you’ve received notification that you have bailiff action coming your way, you need to clue yourself up about what powers bailiffs have, quickly.
Put aside any notions about burying your head, you need to move extremely swiftly in dealing with bailiffs and debt collectors.
I’m going to need you to forget what Janet from around the corner told you, or the many crazy, bullshit rumours that do the rounds – this is what you need to know, and how you need to act!
What are bailiffs?
A bailiff has a legal power to collect certain debts. They can do this by asking you to pay back something you owe, or selling your belongings to raise the money instead.
They can be an appointed court official or employed by a private firm. These days they prefer to be known as enforcement officers and their paperwork will refer to them as such.
However, you can put a pig in lipstick, but it remains a pig, and an enforcement officer is still a plain old bailiff.
Why are bailiffs chasing me?
If you owe money, a bailiff can rock up at your gaff to see if you own anything of value that they can flog to pay off your debt.
Anything raised from selling your possessions will be used to pay off the bailiff fees and charges, plus the original debt they’re chasing you for.
Bailiffs are usually called in when your creditor has exhausted all other options at getting their cash back, and they will normally pre-warn you that they are considering going down the bailiff route to get you to pay.
Bailiffs aren’t police officers (even though some act like they own the land you walk on), they do, however, receive their authority from the court – so you shouldn’t take an impending visit from them lightly.
Don’t confuse them with debt collectors, who although a visit from should also be seen as serious, they are not bailiffs and it is illegal for them to claim to be. They are not a court official and have no right to force entry to your home.
What powers do bailiffs have?
A bailiff has the right to take away some of your possessions, with the exception being anything you cannot live or work without.
They can sell any possessions they lift from your home to raise money that is paid to your creditors for your outstanding debt. As I mentioned earlier, they can be a court official or employed by a private company.
Bailiffs usually won’t get involved unless the case has already been to court and you were unable to come to an agreement with your creditors.
Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) do not require a court order to send bailiffs out – so make sure you stay on the right side of Her Maj at all costs!
If the money you owe is for magistrates’ court fines, the bailiff has the power to force entry into your home to take away possessions, so do HMRC bailiffs, as long as they have a magistrate’s warrant.
County Court bailiffs – for other debts – can’t take anything behind a locked door, including your home, garden shed or garage on their first visit, unless you let them in or they find a door or window unlocked.
They only have to gain entry once, then they’re able to force entry on every subsequent visit after that in connection with that debt – so don’t let them in under any circumstances until you have sought advice from a trained advisor from someone such as Debt Advice Solutions, Citizens Advice or Money Advice Service.
Now, they are going to use every tactic under the sun to get you to open that door, and it’s vital to know that you are under no obligation to do so with a County Court bailiff, so keep it closed and locked.
OK, so now we are all clear about what powers they have, the next thing to be aware of is what they can take from your property to sell. There are very specific rules around what a bailiff can lift from your home.
The bailiff can take:
- Things that belong you to you (apart from the exempt list below)
- Jointly owned things
- Goods which were bought with personal loans. For example, bank loans, or finance company loans, credit cards, mail order or budget account or storecard.
- Cash, cheques, stocks and shares, and pawn tickets that belong to you
- Items that you’re wearing or carrying, such as jewellery, but only if you hand them over or agree to them being taken.
Bailiffs are exempt from taking:
- Items of equipment such as tools, books and computer equipment that are necessary for your work, study or education, up to a total of £1,350, unless your debt is unpaid business rates, in which case the items you use for work are not protected
- Household equipment that serve your ‘basic domestic needs’
- Anything belonging to your child, such as toys
- Anything that you are paying for on Hire Purchase or a conditional sale agreement
- Assistance dogs, sheepdogs, guard dogs or domestic pets
- Any animals, food or hazardous materials that are on the public highway and would cause risk to people if moved
- Any vehicle displaying a valid disabled person’s blue badge because it used for the transport of a disabled person
- A vehicle which is used for police, fire or ambulance work
- A vehicle displaying a British Medical Association or other health emergency badge because it is being used for health emergency purposes
- Any goods that are also your home, such as a houseboat, static caravan, camper van or tent.
Hopefully by now I’ve managed to calm you barm ever so slightly. The following items are considered for ‘basic domestic needs’:
- A cooker or microwave
- A refrigerator
- A washing machine
- A dining table to seat you and everyone else who lives in your home
- Beds and bedding for you and everyone else who lives in your home
- Clothing for you and everyone in your home
- A landline telephone, or a mobile, or an internet phone if there is no landline in your home
- Any equipment that you need for medical purposes, safety or security
- Equipment that provides lighting or heating facilities
- Anything that is needed to care for a child under 18
- Anything that is needed to care for a disabled person or older person.
The following items are not considered ‘basic domestic needs’:
- A television, DVD player or blu-ray player
- A stereo or music player
- A computer that isn’t used for work or study
- Designer clothing, if you have enough clothing available to wear
- Non essential kitchen equipment such as a mixer or food processor.
How can I protect myself against bailiffs?
Now we understand what bailiffs are and what they can legally take, the next step is protecting yourself against them.
So long as that bailiff hasn’t been sent by HMRC, you have the right to refuse them entry to your home.
You can speak to them through an ever-so-slightly open window, or even through the letterbox, however you are NOT obliged to open the door to them or let them in, regardless of what they try and blag you with – so feel free to tell them to Foxtrot Oscar.
It is important you check the paperwork thoroughly, and to comply with the law you should have received at least 7 days notice of the bailiff arriving before they come knocking on the door.
This doesn’t include the day you receive the letter, the day they are visiting you, Sunday, bank holidays, Good Friday or Christmas Day.
The only exception to this rule is if the bailiff has a court notice to say they don’t need to give you seven days notice. This is pretty rare and would only happen if the bailiff had good reason to suspect you might hide or stash your belongings if you were to be given notice of their visit.
If you believe the bailiff has no right to be calling, you must contact your creditor, or a trained debt advisor to help you deal with them.
Explain why you feel they have no right to be there and ask them to stop the action straight away. If you feel that the debt doesn’t relate to you, you should tell them you are disputing liability.
You may also want to consider contacting the bailiffs firm to explain why you believe they are taking incorrect action.
If the bailiff action persists, you can make a complaint, just DON’T let them in.
I don’t want you to think they never have the right to call. If they do, you agree you’re responsible for the debt and they have followed the correct steps, it’s important to be prepared for their visit and to understand whether you have to let them in.
Their charges will be added to your end bill for each stage of the process of taking action against you. They can charge two fees for each stage of the process:
- A fixed fee which is set out by law
- A percentage fee which is only charged on any money to be recovered over £1,500 (£1,000 for bailiff action acting under a High Court writ).
They can only be charged once for each stage of the process, regardless of how much work was involved. For example, if they visit your home three times during the enforcement stage, they can only charge you the enforcement fee once.