A visit from bailiffs is a nightmare idea for many people. They have changed their name to enforcement agents but that doesn’t make it any less scary.
This article looks at what happens after a debt is sent to the bailiffs, the two key rules for dealing with bailiffs and what to do if things go wrong. There is a section at the end about good (and bad) places to get help. In 2021 the new Debt Breathing Space was introduced – this may help you if you have bailiff problems.
I’m talking about personal debts here. If you have been watching Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away, most of the cases there involve business debts or evictions, not personal debts!
Debt collectors and bailiffs – know the difference!
A bailiff is someone who has the legal power to collect debts on behalf of the creditor. The official term for a bailiff is an enforcement agent. Bailiffs can be court officials or they can be employed by a private firm. They can ask you to pay what you owe and can come to your house to take certain belongings (see below) to sell them to pay the debt.
A bailiff can NEVER collect a debt unless there has been a court process. Some common ones are:
- council tax arrears – the local authority has to go to the magistrate’s court to get a Liability Order, after this the local authority can authorise bailiffs;
- CCJs – these may be for consumer debts such as loans or credit cards, utility bills or private parking tickets. After getting a CCJ, creditor has to apply to the court for a warrant of control;
- parking penalty charges – the council will apply to the Traffic Enforcement Centre at Northampton County Court for an Order for Recovery.
If the debt hasn’t been to court but you get a letter from a debt collector talking about sending someone to visit your house, perhaps also mentioning solicitors, courts or bailiffs, then this is probably at a much earlier stage and they aren’t even close to the bailiff point.
A debt collector can send someone to your house, but it’s unusual – most of the time they are bluffing! If a debt collector calls, they are not a bailiff and have no legal authority. You don’t have to talk to a debt collector at your home. If you do, they can’t take away any of your goods or your car.
If you aren’t sure if you are being contacted by a bailiff or a debt collector, this is really important so contact National Debtline asap.
Have you had a Notice of Enforcement?
A Notice of Enforcement is the first step in bailiff action. A bailiff can’t visit your home without sending this. It has to contain set terms, here is a blank one.
If your letter doesn’t look something like that, it probably isn’t from a bailiff who is authorised to collect your debt. If you aren’t sure the letter is right, because it doesn’t have the proper words or some of the information is wrong, contact National Debtline asap.
A fee of £75 is added to your debt when this letter is sent. You won’t get charged again if they send more letters later, see Fees bailiffs can charge for full details.
Can you stop the bailiffs calling?
The bailiff has to wait at least 7 clear days after the Notice of Enforcement before coming to your house.
If you want to stop them coming, you have a short time to act. If you delay it can be expensive – another fee of £235 is charged when the bailiff comes to your house.
There are three situations when you should try to act within this 7 day period:
1) you don’t think the debt is right
This could be because you are not the right person, you are already making payments to the creditor, or the amount is wrong because you have paid it all or some of it, see Stopping bailiff action – your options.
You may be able to apply to the court to “suspend the warrant of control” and for parking penalty notices you may be able to file a late witness statement.
Contact National Debtline or your local Citizens Advice for help with these options.
2) you can pay the debt in full or in instalments
If you can clear the debt now or in a few months of payments, phone the bailiff to try to get this accepted so the extra bailiff fees aren’t added.
The bailiff may reject low instalments. If you would like help to negotiate with the bailiff, go to your local Citizens Advice.
Citizens Advice can help you draw up an income and expenditure sheet. Don’t offer more than you can afford – agreeing to repayments that are too large will result in the bailiff calling later when you can’t manage them.
3) you are vulnerable
The regulations are supposed to provide extra protection for people who are vulnerable because of their age, physical or mental health, ability to understand English, family situation (single parent, recently bereaved, pregnant) etc. But in practice, this often doesn’t happen.
If you are vulnerable and want your case to be returned to the creditor, go to your local Citizens Advice and ask for help.
Do you have to let a bailiff in?
For CCJs (including all loans, credit cards, overdrafts, mobile debts, parking tickets), unpaid council tax, fixed penalty notices for traffic offences etc a bailiff can’t break in unless you have previously let them in.
There are only a couple of situations when a bailiff can force entry to your house:
- they are collecting criminal fines from a magistrates court. (A fixed penalty for a traffic or parking offence is NOT a criminal fine.)
- they are collecting tax debts to HMRC and they have permission from the court to force entry.
Not sure or want some confirmation? Contact National Debtline who can explain the situation for your specific debt.
When a bailiff can’t force entry you should not let them in.
The first key rule of dealing with bailiffs is don’t open the door to them unless you have talked to a debt adviser who says they can force entry.
It’s very important that you don’t let a bailiff in – if you do, the next time they are allowed to break in!
Bailiffs aren’t supposed to push past you, but why take the risk? Unless the door is on a chain, just keep it shut and talk through the letterbox.
You may want to explain to the bailiff that nothing in the house belongs to you, or you have already paid the debt, or you have asked the council to take the debt back, or even to pay the bailiff part or all of the debt … but talk through the letterbox or a chained door. Or say you will phone them. And get a receipt if you are giving them cash!
The bailiff may say they can’t set up a payment plan unless they come into your house – don’t fall for this. If you let them in, they may refuse to accept the payments you are offering. It is easier to get them to accept a repayment plan if they haven’t been in your house.
You can set up a payment plan on the phone or by email. Or you could go to your local Citizens Advice and ask for their help to do this.
If you don’t let them in, you may get more letters, they may come again… but it’s good to know you don’t get charged more for any visits after the first one. Soon they will give up and return the debt to the creditor as they can’t collect it. The debt still exists, it isn’t wiped out.
What if they threaten you with prison?
If the bailiffs are trying to collect council tax, you may get a very nasty letter saying that they are going to recommend you are sent to prison if you don’t pay them.
Although it is theoretically possible to be sent to prison for council tax this is very rare – less than 100 people were imprisoned for council tax debt in 2016-17 – and the letters are usually very misleading. They don’t mention that the magistrates may wipe out your debt if you can’t afford to pay it for example! See Prison and Council Tax debt for an example of one letter.
Don’t get panicked by one of these into making an arrangement that you can’t afford. Get some good debt advice.
Cars and bailiffs
Bailiffs are generally allowed to take a car, van or motorbike when collecting a debt. But there are some important exceptions – they can’t take a vehicle if:
- it belongs to someone else. Even if the car is registered in your name it may have been bought by your partner;
- it is on car finance – this includes HP, PCP, leasing or there is a logbook loan on it;
- it is worth less than £1,350 and is necessary for your work or study and there is no public transport you could use;
- it is displaying a disabled blue badge;
- it is also your home, such as a motorhome.
If your car fits one of these exceptions, it shouldn’t be taken. Tell the bailiff this and show any proof, such as your car finance documents.
Bailiffs will usually choose to take a car rather than goods from your house because it is worth more. If they take your car it will be sold at auction, often for a lot less than you think it is worth.
So the second key rule of dealing with bailiffs is to park your car somewhere safe.
Citizens Advice says:
If you don’t want your car to be taken, the best thing to do is to park it on private land, such as a friend’s driveway or a car park. A bailiff can take your car if it is parked on a public highway, but they can’t take a car parked on private land belonging to someone else without a court order.
Other good options are to leave the car in a locked garage or park it a long way from the house – not in the next road.
Planning for a bailiff visit
When you know a bailiff is likely to call, explain to everyone in the house they should not open the door unless they know the person. Yes, it’s embarrassing telling your parents or flatmates that you have a bailiff problem – but it will be worse if they let a bailiff in who tries to take their things.
With a child, say that they mustn’t open the door to anyone except their friends. They should call you if you are in the house or phone you if you aren’t.
Keep doors locked or on a chain. It’s a good idea to keep downstairs windows shut. Bailiffs shouldn’t enter through a window, but keeping them shut will help you and your family feel more secure.
You may like some moral support by having a friend or a relative to be with you.
If there are things you want to show the bailiff (car finance documents, something that proves you are vulnerable, an income & expenditure sheet showing that you can afford so much a month etc), then get this ready so you can find them quickly. You could also take a copy of them so you can give one to the bailiff through the letterbox. Or email them to the bailiff in advance.
What if you do let them in?
What can bailiffs take?
If you do let a bailiff in, they can only take certain sorts of things. They have to belong to you, so bailiffs can’t take:
- anything bought on Hire Purchase;
- your children’s toys;
- things which belong to your partner, your parents, your flatmates or anyone else.
If a bailiff tries to take something that isn’t yours, you need some evidence of who owns it such as a bill or receipt, their credit card statement, family letters or emails referring to a gift etc. (NB you can’t give your possessions away after you have received the Notice of Enforcement from a bailiff.) If there is no receipt, the owner can make a statutory declaration where they swear the item is theirs – contact National Debtline for advice about this.
Bailiffs can’t take things which are necessary for day-to-day living or your work, see the list here. This includes clothing; bedding; some household appliances such as a fridge or a washing machine; and the tools of your trade or things you need for studying or education, such as a laptop.
Do they just take things away?
It’s unusual for a bailiff to immediately take anything away – they would rather you paid the money. What normally happens is they give you a list of things they will take. This is called a Controlled Goods Agreement – see what one should look like and what it means here.
If you have agreed to repayments you can’t afford, or the bailiff has listed items they aren’t allowed to take, you need advice fast. Go to your local Citizens Advice who can talk to the bailiff if necessary. Or phone National Debtline.
What if things go wrong
Bailiffs have rules that cover the procedures they must follow and the amount they can charge. They should act professionally, not be aggressive or rude or misleading. If you think they have behaved badly, make some notes as soon afterwards as possible.
Complaining about bailiffs can be complicated. Sometimes you may be able to go to court, sometimes you should write not just to the bailiff but to the creditor as well. See this Citizens Advice page for details and if you don’t feel confident, get some help by talking to National Debtline or Citizens Advice first.
The most urgent complaints are where a bailiff has taken or is preparing to take (has clamped a car or listed something on a Controlled Goods Order) something which they shouldn’t, either because it doesn’t belong to you or because it should be exempt. In this case, you need help quicky to recover the item or stop it being taken.
The bigger picture & would a breathing space help?
A letter from a bailiff is a priority. But you still need to look at your whole situation before making an offer of monthly payments.
If you have had council tax problems for a while, this bailiff debt may only be for one of the previous tax years even though you also have problems for other tax years. You need to be able to make payments to the other council tax arrears – and this year’s payments – otherwise they too will be sent to bailiffs.
If you have been ignoring other credit cards and loans that you have because you can’t afford them, this may just be the first CCJ/bailiff action. If you offer too much to settle this one, you won’t have anything for your other creditors.
So unless this debt with the bailiff is really your only problem debt, it’s a good idea to talk to a debt adviser about your whole situation.
In 2021 a new procedure called a Debt Breathing Space became law. This may help you if you have had a letter from a bailiff as if a 60 day Breathing Space is set up this will stop a bailiff calling during that time. It doesn’t solve the debt problem, but it gives you time to work out with your debt adviser what you should do. Citizens Advice or National Debtline can set up a Breathing space for you – and they will explain your other options if there is a better alternative.
Where to get help
If you are still at the worrying about what might happen stage, read How to stop a debt being sent to the bailiffs. Whether you have just missed a payment to a debt, you are getting letters from debt collectors or have been taken to court, there are things you can do to stop any chance of ever seeing a bailiff.
To get help and information about your specific case, good people to talk to are:
- your local Citizens Advice – if you can get to your local Citizens Advice fast they are usually the best people to help with bailiff problems. They will be able to negotiate with the creditor and the bailiff on your behalf. If the creditor is your local council, they will have dealt with a lot of these problems and know the local council procedures.
- National Debtline – you can contact National Debtline on the phone or (often faster) their web chat. They can answer questions quickly.
- for business debts, contact Business Debtline.
- for bailiffs and evictions, contact Shelter or your local Citizens Advice.
There are firms that advertise that they help you with bailiffs. Don’t trust these – most of them just want to make money by referring you to commercial debt management firms. Very few actually help people by phoning the bailiff or creditor.