A visit from a bailiff can be a scary and intimidating experience. Mental health charity Mind reports that 96% of people experienced increased levels of anxiety after a visit from bailiffs and 87% reported increased levels of depression. It’s important to recognise the effects a visit from the bailiffs may have on you and seek help if you feel you need to. Remember you are by no means alone in being worried by such a visit. Bailiffs are there to get the money you owe and some may try and achieve this by unfair methods, perhaps by putting you under undue pressure or by implying they have more power than they really do to try to scare you into paying more than you can afford.
However, it’s important to remember that you still have rights and bailiffs must stick to a strict code of conduct to ensure they respect these rights. If they do not, you can report them. This guide should answer some of your questions about what powers bailiffs have and how you can deal with them.
Bailiffs are people authorised to recover a debt on behalf of the creditor you owe money to. Different types of bailiffs may be used depending on what sort of debt you owe and some of these have slightly different powers in terms of how they can get access to your property and what sort of items they can take. However, there are some rules which apply to all bailiffs.
Bailiffs are usually only used if you have council tax arrears or your creditor has got a county court judgement against you. They can also be used for unpaid fines, child maintenance arrears, rent arrears, income tax arrears and parking fines. Debt collectors have less power than bailiffs and cannot enter your home or take your possessions. They are allowed to contact you by phone, letter or in person at your property to discuss your debt and how to pay it back.
Debt collectors must not make you think they are bailiffs. If you have been contacted by a debt collector, see Step Change for advice.
In most cases you do not have to let bailiffs into your home. They are not allowed to force their way in and they cannot break in. However, they are allowed to enter if they can ‘gain peaceful entry’. This means they can come in without your permission if they can get in without using force, for instance through an unlocked door or by climbing through an open window, so if you know bailiffs may be calling round make sure your property is secure and all doors and windows are shut and locked.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, for example if you’ve got unpaid criminal fines, bailiffs working for the magistrates’ court may be able to use ‘reasonable force’ to get into your home and seize goods. Bailiffs may also be able to force their way into commercial property if there is no living area attached.
If a bailiff has visited your house before and been able to get in, either by you letting them in or by gaining peaceful entry, then if they come back a second time they may be able to force their way in.
Bailiffs may try a number of different methods of gaining peaceful entry into your property. They are not allowed to force their way past you if you answer the door to them, but they may try to walk in quickly before you have a chance to stop them. If you have a security chain on your door always use it when opening the door to someone you don’t know. They may also try to get in by asking if they can use your phone or toilet, or by saying they only want to come in so they can discuss your debt. Remember, you do not have to let them in for any of these reasons.
Bailiffs are sometimes accompanied by police; however, they will only be there to keep the peace. You cannot be arrested for refusing to let the bailiffs in, or for owing money to someone, although if you have council tax arrears, child maintenance arrears or owe magistrates’ fines then you may face imprisonment if the court believes you can afford to pay but are simply refusing to do so.
If you continually refuse to let bailiffs in eventually they will give up and pass the debt back to whoever you owed the money to in the first place. At this point you will be able to contact your creditor to make an offer of payment, remember that bailiffs charge fees for visiting you and these may be added to your debt.
If you are worried about the bailiffs entering your property you may be concerned about what items they will take. You may want to gather together paperwork such as receipts and hire purchase agreements for items which you do not legally own to make sure the bailiffs cannot take these. Also, see the section below on What items can bailiffs seize? to find out what items they should allow you to keep.
If your debt has not yet been passed to the bailiffs but you have been notified that it will be unless you pay within a certain period of time, it’s really important that you contact your creditor and try to make an arrangement with them to pay what you owe. If bailiffs visit your home they will charge extra fees which will be added to your total debt. Try to keep in touch with your creditor throughout the process and let them know that although you are unwilling to let the bailiffs in, you want to settle your debt and offer to pay what you can afford.
If the debt is an unpaid county court judgement you can apply to the court to suspend the warrant. You will need to provide details of your income and expenditure (see our Calculating Your Budget section for more help on this) and may have to pay a fee, although this might not be charged if you are in receipt of certain benefits or are on a low income.
If the bailiff gains entry to your property, they then have the right to enter all rooms and can break into any doors or cupboards which are locked. Once they have gained entry once they may force their way back in if they call again. Any attempt to remove the bailiffs once they have entered your property will be classed as assault and you could be arrested.
The bailiffs will try to find and seize any goods which they think may be valuable. These will then be sold off at public auction in order to raise money to help pay off your debt. In order to show their intention to seize an item they may touch it, mark it or verbally inform you that they are seizing the item. Once they have seized goods, the bailiffs may remove items immediately, leave someone at the property to guard the seized items until they come back to collect them, or ask you to sign a ‘walking possession agreement’.
This is when the bailiffs make you sign an agreement relating to the goods they have seized. These goods are now the legal property of the bailiffs and can be removed at any time, however you are allowed to keep them in your home and use them as long as you do not damage them in any way and keep to the terms of the agreement. You will have to pay a daily fee for use of the items, on top of the debt you already owe and the bailiffs’ fees.
Bailiffs must have gained peaceful entry to your property before they can issue a walking possession agreement – they cannot simply list goods they have seen through the window and post the agreement through the door for you to sign. You should never sign an agreement under these circumstances.
Bailiffs seize goods to sell at auction in order to raise money to pay your debts. Generally, items will only sell for around 10% of their original price at auction so bailiffs may take goods worth around 10 times the amount you owe to make sure they earn enough at the auction to cover your debt. For instance, if you owe £50, they may try to at least £500 worth of goods to make sure they make enough money.
The sort of items bailiffs can take depends on what kind of bailiffs they are. Most bailiffs cannot take:
- Tools, goods or vehicles you need for use in your job.
- Clothing, bedding, furniture, household equipment and provisions necessary for your basic domestic needs. This usually includes your fridge, cooker and freezer, but may not cover things like video recorders, DVD players, TVs, jewellery or microwaves.
- Items such as toys which belong to a child.
- Bailiffs should not take goods which don’t belong to you, although they may be able to take jointly owned goods. They also should not take hire purchase goods as you do not own these until you have made all payments. You may need to show the bailiffs your hire purchase agreement or any receipts you may have to prove you do not own certain items.
They can take goods outside your home, such as your car or any items of garden equipment etc.
If the bailiffs seize any goods you do not believe they should take, seek legal advice immediately. See our section on Legal Advice for more information.
It is perfectly legal for you to remove goods from the property or hide them before the bailiffs arrive, unless the bailiff is calling regarding rent arrears. You cannot remove goods which are subject to a walking possessions order as these are now legally the property of the bailiffs.
Be aware that once a bailiff has gained peaceful entrance to your property on one occasion they can come back at any time and if they believe you have removed or hidden goods then they are likely to do this in an attempt to catch you out.
When the goods are taken away (this may not happen for a while if they are subject to a walking possession agreement) they will be sold at auction. The money raised will be used to first of all pay the bailiffs’ fees and then pay off any money you owe on your debts. Remember that the second hand value of goods is likely to be much lower than what you initially paid for them, so even if the bailiffs have taken a lot of your goods this still may not be enough to cover your debts.
To some extent this depends on the bailiffs themselves. Some will negotiate with you; others may say you must go back to the original creditor. Some may simply be too difficult to get hold of. You are usually better to either apply to the court to suspend the warrant (see What should I do if I’ve had notice that bailiffs may visit my home?) or wait for the bailiffs to pass your debt back to your original creditor.
The code of conduct for bailiffs is called the National Standard for Enforcement Agents (NSEA) and all bailiffs should comply with it.
It states that bailiffs (or enforcement agents) should:
- Carry out their duties in a professional manner. This includes dressing appropriately and acting fairly and with discretion at all times.
- Not misrepresent or exaggerate their powers in order to intimidate people.
- Not discriminate on grounds of gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, race or religion.
- Produce identification on request.
- Communicate clearly and provide information (on charges etc) promptly on request.
- Be able to arrange for translation services and provision of information in large print, Braille etc as required.
- Identify and deal fairly with vulnerable people such as the elderly, those who are disabled, people who have recently suffered bereavement, single parents, pregnant women, those who are unemployed or on a low income and people with language difficulties.
It also states that:
- ‘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 to the owner of the property so they understand what’s happening.
- If the only person present is or appears to be under 18, the bailiff must leave the property but may ask when the debtor will be home. If the only people at home are children under the age of 12, the agent must leave straight away without asking them any questions.
- Bailiffs should as far as possible avoid telling anyone who is not the debtor the purpose of their visit. Relevant documents should be left in a sealed envelope addressed to her/him.
- Ideally, visits should only be made between 6am and 9pm, and should not take place on Sundays, Bank Holidays, Good Friday or Christmas Day, unless a court specifically allows this. Bailiffs should also respect other religions and cultures, and visits on festivals and holidays should be avoided.
- Items that clearly belong to a child should not be seized.
- Bailiffs should (as far as possible) make sure that the value of goods seized is equal to the debt and charges owed. However, as we have mentioned, the lower second hand value of goods mean that they need to take more items than you may expect to make sure that the money they make will be enough to cover your debts.
- The debtor should be given receipts for any goods which are removed.
- 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 bailiff agency and from the bailiffs themselves on request.
- There are no set consequences for non-compliance with the NSEA but all bailiff agencies are required to have complaints and disciplinary procedures. See the section below for information on how to make a compliant if a bailiff has acted against these guidelines or has done anything else which you did not feel comfortable with.
There are several options if you want to make a complaint about bailiffs who have visited your property. You can complain to:
- The creditor who you owe money to.
- The professional body the bailiff belongs to. There are several different professional bodies, so you will have to ask the bailiffs which one they belong to.
- The court, if your debt is subject to a county court judgement.
- The police, particularly if the bailiffs have committed a criminal offence (for instance forcing their way into your home or behaving in a threatening manner towards you).
If you have a complaint about bailiffs you may wish to seek further advice about the best course to take. The CAB may be able to help (Tameside CAB can be contacted on 03444 889 622).
If you require legal assistance with your complaint, see our Legal Advice page, or for details of other organisations which may be able to help, see Useful Organisations.