Jerome Rogers, a 20 year old courier, got a couple of parking tickets last year that he couldn’t afford to pay. After these were sent to the bailiffs, two £65 tickets ballooned to a debt of over £1,000. A bailiff clamped his motorcycle so Jerome couldn’t earn any money at all and he killed himself.
But this isn’t just Jerome’s story, it’s about the millions of people in in Britain who have been pushed by bailiffs to repay more than they can afford.
In 2014/5 more than two million debts were sent to the bailiffs by councils, most for council tax arrears and the rest parking tickets. Unpaid magistrates court fines, for speeding or not having a TV licence say, also go to bailiffs.
So what is so badly wrong with the bailiff system that a young man, with no history of mental illness, was left feeling utterly without hope?
Problem one – high fees
Bailiffs are allowed to charge two main sets of fees:
- £75 when they send you a letter saying they have to collect a debt and asking you to phone them to make an arrangement to pay it;
- £235 when they visit you house if you haven’t made an arrangement to pay.
So that’s £310 in all.
These fees can be much larger than the original debt. This is often the case with council tax arrears – a typical amount owed by someone who is too sick to work could be £100 and this jumps to £500 when court costs and bailiff charges are added.
It’s not just the level of the bailiff fees that matter, but the structure. There is no incentive for a bailiff to let you agree a repayment arrangement over the phone at the start – he will get much larger fees if he refuses your offer and insists on visiting your house!
Problem two – no affordable repayment option
It is common for a bailiff to refuse to accept an affordable payment arrangement. They may demand that a £500 bill for council tax arrears is repaid in only a few months, by a single parent with small children.
The Coroner mentioned in Jerome’s case, saying Newlyn, the bailiffs had not done enough to help Jerome set up a repayment schedule he could afford.
Problem three – applying too much pressure
Sometimes bailiffs bend or break the rules:
- they are not supposed to visit your house outside “reasonable hours” of 6am to 9pm, but sometimes they do;
- they shouldn’t enter a house if a door has been opened by a child and there is no adult inside, but sometimes they do;
- they shouldn’t lie to people, saying “I’ll be round with a locksmith tomorrow if you don’t open the door” if they have no legal right to do this;
- they should take account of people who are vulnerable, with mental health problems or learning difficulties, but often they don’t;
- they shouldn’t threaten to take basic household items, such as beds, cookers and fridges;
- they aren’t allowed to take the “tools of your trade” unless they are worth more than £1,350. Tragically this means that it was actually wrong for Jerome’s motorcycle, worth only £400, to be clamped.
Bailiff reform is needed
Seven national charities are calling for major bailiff reform. In March they set up a website https://www.bailiffreform.org/# where people can add short, anonymous reports of their bailiff story. The Ministry of Justice is reviewing bailiff rules this year, so the more evidence there is, the better.
If you, or a relative, have dealt with bailiffs since 2014, could you add to that site? It doesn’t have to be a horror story that ended in tragedy – just feeling the bailiff was aggressive and scared your children, being pushed to pay more than you can afford, or to take out a payday loan needs to be reported.
Are you worried about bailiffs now?
Bailiffs cannot be sent round unless your debt has gone to court – you don’t need to worry that you will get a knock on your door if you miss a loan or credit card payment. The sooner you get some debt advice, the more chance there is of avoiding bailiffs in the future.
If you have just had that letter from a bailiff, then get some urgent help. Go to your local Citizens Advice or phone National Debtline on 0808 808 4000. They will be able to explain the facts – is yours one of the unusual cases where a bailiff can break in? what items can they take? what about other people’s belongings? And also help you look at your options.
This is a guest post by Sara Williams, a Citizens Advice advisor who blogs about debt and credit ratings on her personal website, Debt Camel.