If your debts get to the stage where a bailiff comes knocking at your door to seize goods, it can be a very distressing experience. However, if you know your rights and the law beforehand, this can alleviate some of the stress and make the situation much more manageable.
This guide to the regulations on bailiffs refers to England and Wales only.
What is a bailiff?
First of all, back to basics ? what is a bailiff? A bailiff is someone who collects a debt on behalf of someone to whom you owe money (a creditor).
There are different types of bailiffs ? county court, certified and private. County court bailiffs are employed by the local authority, certified bailiffs are employed by a private debt collection company but have provided references to the local authority to confirm their suitability to work as bailiffs.
All types of bailiff must adhere to the same general regulations, although some have more power than others to collect debts.
When is a bailiff authorised to enter your house?
A bailiff might be employed to collect debts such as magistrates court fines, county court judgements, unpaid council tax, outstanding child support or maintenance, or overdue rent.
Legal authority must be granted by the court to permit a bailiff to enter your house. There are different terms for the authority depending on the type of debt. For county court judgements, a warrant of execution is required. Other types are a liability order or a distress warrant for unpaid fines, council tax or maintenance from the magistrates court.
Sometimes creditors (or the debt collection agencies working on their behalf) may send representatives as ?counsellors?, ?advisors? or ?collectors? to negotiate the repayment of the debt with you. These people are not bailiffs and they have no right to enter your home or seize any goods.
Ask the bailiff for identification and for their warrant to enter your house ? they must provide these if you request to see them.
You will be given at least seven or 14 days? notice of the bailiff?s visit, depending on the type of warrant granted. However, you could receive a visit at any time of day ? there are no regulations as to when bailiffs must call (except for those collecting rent, who must call between dawn and dusk).
A bailiff can?t enter your house if the only person present is under 18m, and they can?t enter at all if there?s a child under 12 in the house, even if there?s an adult present.
Do you have to let them in?
Under most circumstances, bailiffs are not allowed gain entry to your house by force. Either you must invite them into your home, or they can come in through an unlocked door or open window. They?re allowed to climb over walls, gates and fences to get to your property, but they?re not allowed to knock them down. And they can?t force their way past you if you answer the door.
As a result of these restrictions, bailiffs often employ other methods to enter your house peacefully. They may ask you to take pity on them and let them inside if it?s raining, or they may request to use your phone to speak to the creditor or debt collection agency. They may also bring along police officers if they believe there may be a disturbance, which can be very intimidating. However, you don?t have to agree to any of these ? even if the police are present.
What will the bailiffs do if you let them in?
If a bailiff gains entry to your house by peaceful means, they can then take goods belonging to the person named on the warrant to cover the cost of the debt if the person can?t pay by other means. It can be difficult to prove who owns the goods, but the onus is on you. Normally the bailiff will be able to take the goods and it is up to you afterwards to provide evidence of ownership if they do not belong to you.
When inside, bailiffs are allowed to break down locked doors or cupboards, and after you?ve allowed them into your house once, they have the right to enter again with or without your permission ? and they can even break a door or window to do so.
You have no right to forcibly remove a bailiff from your property after they have entered and you could be charged with assault if you do.
What goods can a bailiff take?
There are some restrictions as to what items a bailiff is allowed to remove from your property. Only non-essential items can be seized to cover the debt, i.e. they must not take items that you need for basic living, such as a cooker, a fridge, a bed, clothing or equipment or vehicles that you need to carry out your job. However, they?re entitled to take items such as a microwave oven, a hi-fi, a DVD player or a second television set, as these are considered luxuries rather than essentials.
To express their intention as to what goods they will take, the bailiff will either put a note on them, touch them, point at them or tell you. This is known as levying distress upon goods.
They?re most likely to take the items away immediately, although they could leave someone to guard them until they are able to collect them.
Can you hide goods in advance of a bailiff visit?
Unless your debt is rent arrears, it?s not illegal to hide goods or take them away from your house before the bailiff comes. However, if the bailiff obtains peaceful entry to your house and suspects you have hidden goods, they may return unexpectedly to look for the items they believe you have hidden.
Is there a charge for a bailiff visit?
You will be charged a fee every time a bailiff has to come to your house. The bailiffs will also charge for removing, storing and selling your goods, which is likely to be done at auction. And your items won?t be likely to fetch a good price at auction. They normally only sell for around 10% of their original value. So even if your debt is only ?100, the bailiffs will be entitled to seize goods up to the value of ?1,000 to cover the debt.
Are there any alternatives to losing your goods?
One solution that will allow you to keep the goods in your house is a walking possession order, in which the bailiff owns the seized goods but allows you to keep and use them as long as you stick to your part of an agreed repayment plan.
In order to seize goods for a walking possession order, the bailiff must gain peaceful entry into your house. One trick that some bailiffs may have up their sleeve is to make a list of goods that they have seen through a window and then post the order through the letterbox. You should not sign any order that has been taken out in this way.
Walking possession orders are subject to a fee ? you will be charged daily for as long as it is in place.
Another potential solution is to attempt to negotiate ? although this will probably only be effective at earlier stages of the debt recovery process, before the bailiff?s visit. You?re more likely to be able to come to a manageable agreement with your creditor if you keep communicating with them so that they understand your situation, rather than ignoring the repayment demands they send. As soon as you get notice of a bailiff visit, start negotiations with the creditor or debt collection agency immediately to try to agree on repayments and persuade them to cancel the bailiff?s warrant.
For advice on how to deal with your debt and bailiff visits, contact your local Citizen?s Advice Bureau.
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