In his second article on bailiffs and the law, Gary Vaux examines the powers that bailiffs have to seize someone’s goods for sale on entering the home
In my last article, I looked at who bailiffs are and what they can do. (www.communitycare.co.uk/109336) Once in the house, a bailiff will attempt to seize enough goods in order to sell them at public auction to raise money to pay the debt. The bailiff will make clear an intention to seize various items, either verbally, or by attaching a mark to them, or by touching them. This is sometimes called levying distress or distraining upon goods.
Once the bailiff has seized goods, they have several options. They can either take the items immediately or they can leave someone on the premises to guard them. The most likely outcome is that the bailiff will look for a “walking possession agreement”. This means that the seized goods now legally belong to the bailiff and can be removed at any time. However, the bailiff will allow the goods to remain in the home and the client can continue to use them providing they keep their side of the agreement, for example to make agreed payments. Because the bailiff owns the goods, it would be illegal for the client to sell them.
For a walking possession order to be valid, a bailiff should have gained peaceful entry to the property and seized the goods. It is not enough for a bailiff to list items that they have seen through a window and push a walking possession order through the letterbox for the client to sign and return.
There is a daily charge for a walking possession order that must be paid on top of the original debt.
The goods will be sold at public auction and typically will sell for about 10% of their original value. This means that someone owing £200 will find the bailiff taking goods worth about £2,000.
A bailiff must only seize goods that belong to the person who owes the money, although any goods in the house can be seized for rent debts. In practice, many bailiffs will attempt to seize any goods of value at a house they visit – it will be up to the individual to prove ownership afterwards.
Bailiffs (except bailiffs acting on behalf of a magistrates’ court) cannot seize tools, goods, vehicles and other equipment needed for work or clothing, bedding, furniture, household equipment and provisions that are needed for the basic domestic needs of the debtor and family (this would normally include fridge, cookers, freezers, but not entertainment equipment).
It is not unlawful to remove goods from the house or hide them before a bailiff visits, unless the bailiff is distraining for rent. But, once a bailiff has gained peaceful entry, they can return at any time. If the bailiff believes that goods have been removed or hidden before their visit, this is likely to happen.
The fees that bailiffs can charge will vary but there are fixed fees for bailiffs collecting council tax. All bailiff fees (with the exception of magistrates’ court bailiffs) can be looked at by a county court to judge whether they are reasonable or excessive. This is known as “detailed assessment”.
If you have any complaints about a bailiff, take it up with the person who instructed them, for example a local authority, the county court or whoever the creditor is.
The first article was published on p23, in the 11 September edition of Community Care
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 9 October issue of Community Care under the heading Distress and distraining: the rights of bailiffs to property