Many clients have debts that may worsen in the current economic downturn and culminate in a visit from a bailiff. This article explains what a bailiff can and cannot do if they visit your client, writes Gary Vaux
A bailiff (now officially known as an enforcement agent) is someone authorised to collect a debt on behalf of a creditor. Anyone can be a bailiff, providing they have legal authority to carry out their actions, but “certificated” bailiffs have given references to the county court and should only employ “fit and proper” persons.
The authority to collect a debt 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 a 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 court.
Creditors will sometimes send representatives to your client to try to negotiate repayments. Called counsellors, collectors or advisers, they are not bailiffs and do not have powers to enter the home and seize goods.
Genuine bailiffs should provide identification or authorisation when asked. Only bailiffs collecting rent are obliged to call between sunrise and sunset. All other bailiffs can call at any time of day or night. However, most bailiffs should call at a “reasonable” time.
Bailiffs do not have the right to force their way into the home, except those from HM Revenue and Customs. In addition, bailiffs acting for a magistrates’ court may enter and search any premises when pursuing unpaid criminal fines.
All other bailiffs have a right of peaceful entry only. This means that they cannot use force to enter the home, for example by breaking a window or a door.
A bailiff cannot force their way past the debtor to get into the house. If all the doors and windows are securely closed, bailiffs will not be able to gain peaceful entry to the house unless let in.
Bailiffs are aware of their limited powers and may use a variety of tricks to gain entry. They may simply try to walk in as soon as a door is opened or ask if they can use the telephone to check if an arrangement is satisfactory with their office. They may just ask if the debtor would prefer to discuss matters inside, or even ask to use the toilet.
Debtors cannot be arrested for refusing to allow a bailiff into their home. If a bailiff is accompanied by the police, they are only there to prevent a breach of the peace. However, any attempt to remove a bailiff from the property once they have gained peaceful entry is assault and your client could be arrested for it.
If the bailiff gains peaceful entry, they have the right to enter all rooms and can break open any locked door or cupboard. They can call again and enter without permission (break in) and remove any goods of value belonging to the person who owes the debt or who is named on the warrant.
Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is published in the 11 September edition of Community Care magazine under the headline “I’ll huff and I’ll puff” – the right of bailiffs to enter homes