Update March 2017 seven major charities are campaigning for better regulation of bailiffs. You can add your experience of dealing with bailiffs to their national map here.
This is a guest post by Chris Richards from Council Tax Advisors, a not-for-profit organisation that specialises in negotiating repayment plans with bailiffs or local authorities.
A visit from the council tax bailiffs is a nightmare situation in many people’s minds. Let’s face it, even the word “bailiff” itself is scary. And even though the official term is now “enforcement agent”, a visit from the bailiffs is one of the things people who have a council tax debt fear the most.
But as with everything that is scary, facing up to it is the best way to deal with it. If you have a council tax debt and are worried about a visit from the bailiffs, this article will tell you the truth about who council tax bailiffs are, the powers they hold and what you can do about them.
Who are council tax bailiffs?
A bailiff is someone who has the legal power to collect debts on behalf of the creditor (the person, business or organisation that is owed the money). In the case of council tax arrears, it is the council that is the creditor.
The bailiff has the authority to collect the money on behalf of your creditor. They can ask you to pay what you owe, either in a lump sum or in instalments. They can also visit your home to take your belongings to sell them to raise the money.
The official term for a bailiff is an enforcement agent. This is the term that will be used in any paperwork you receive from them or about them. Bailiffs can be court officials or they can be employed by a private firm.
When are council tax bailiffs appointed?
Bailiffs cannot be appointed to collect unpaid council tax unless the council has gone through a clearly defined process to try to recover it in other ways.
The council must have sent you reminder notices about the unpaid council tax. If you do not pay the unpaid council tax after these notices have been sent, the council can take legal action. This involves asking a magistrate for a liability order, which is a legal demand for payment.
If you do not pay after receiving a liability order, the council can apply for an enforcement order. This allows it to appoint bailiffs or to arrange to have the unpaid council tax taken directly from your wages or from any benefits you receive such as Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Jobseeker’s Allowance, Pension Credit and Universal Credit. The enforcement order also gives the bailiffs that have been appointed the power to visit your home and take goods to sell to repay the debt.
What happens when a council tax bailiff visits my home?
Bailiffs must usually give you at least seven days’ notice before they visit you for the first time. They can only come between 6.00am and 9.00pm.
You do not have to let a bailiff into your home. In fact, you do not even have to open the door to a bailiff – you can communicate with them through a chained door, a window or a letterbox. This will give you peace of mind that you have protected you and your family.
A bailiff must be invited into your home. A bailiff cannot force entry into your home by pushing past you or breaking a window. However, if they have been given a court order or if they have been allowed to enter on a previous occasion, they can use “reasonable force”.
It is important to consider the decision to let them in for the first time very carefully. Once you have invited them in once, they are automatically permitted to re-enter when they return. Note that if only people under 16 or vulnerable people (such as someone with a disability) is at home when the bailiff calls, the bailiff cannot come in.
Even if you do not let a bailiff in, they can still take things from the outside of your home such as your car, see Vehicles and Bailiffs for more details about cars.
You can still pay the amount owed when the bailiff visits your home. Once the debt is settled, it is unnecessary for them to take any of your possessions.
What possessions can council tax bailiffs take?
Bailiffs can only seize certain goods. These items must not be essential for day-to-day living or your work. Bailiffs cannot take items such as:
- items belonging to someone else
- items on finance (such as a car on HP or leasing)
- your home’s fixtures and fittings
- bedding and essential household appliances (like dishwashers or fridges)
- children’s belongings (like toys)
If the bailiff tries to take an item belonging to someone else, you will need to provide proof that it does not belong to you.
If you do not have enough goods to cover your debts, the bailiff can leave and return at a later date. If a bailiff has already entered your home and you then hide items or take them to another location, this is an offence. They have 12 months from when the enforcement notice was issued to take your belongings to repay the debt.
If you have more items than are needed to cover the debts when they are sold, the bailiff can only take enough items to cover the debt and not more.
What can council tax bailiffs charge?
The fees that council tax bailiffs can charge is strictly regulated. There are three stages: compliance, enforcement and sale. At each stage, the bailiff can charge two fees: a fixed fee and a percentage fee. The percentage fee is only charged on debts of over £1,500 (or £1,000 for bailiffs with a High Court writ).
Each fee can only be charged once, no matter how much work was involved or how many times the bailiff had to visit your home.
The fees for each stage are as follows:
- Compliance: this is when your case is passed from the council to the bailiff. The fee is £75.
- Enforcement: this is when the bailiff visits your home for the first time, they cannot charge for any further visits. The fee is £235 + 7.5% of debts over £1,500.
- Sale: this is when the bailiff begins to remove items from your home or prepares them for sale. The fee is £110 + an additional 7.5% of debts over £1,500.
What do I do if I have a complaint about a council tax bailiff?
Bailiffs have a set of rules that cover the procedure they must follow, the amount they can charge and the way they must treat you, particularly if you are a vulnerable person.
Vulnerable people include older people, disabled people, people with mental health issues, the seriously ill, the recently bereaved, single parent families, pregnant women, unemployed people or those who have obvious difficulty in understanding, speaking or reading English.
If you think a bailiff has acted wrongly at any point, write a letter to the bailiff company and send a copy to the council they are acting for. Include specific details with dates and times and keep a copy for your records. If you do not get a reply to your letter, seek independent help. This will give you peace of mind you are taking the right action and have the right information. If you are not taking the right action, you could make the problem worse.
How can I stop a visit from council tax bailiffs?
You can pay the bailiff directly when they visit your home. If you do this, make sure you get a receipt.
You can prevent a visit from council tax bailiffs by arranging to repay the debt. You can arrange a repayment plan with your council or with the bailiffs but make sure it is reasonable and affordable. Drawing up a budget will help you work out what you can reasonably afford. Independent and free support is available to help you do this.
Once you have got a repayment plan in place, you can ask the council to take the account back from the bailiffs, although you may find you need help from an independent debt advisor such as Council Tax Advisors to help you achieve this. As long as you continue to make the payments, no further action will be taken.
Where can I get help to deal with council tax bailiffs?
If you have got council tax arrears, the most useful thing you can do is seek independent debt advice as soon as possible.
Council Tax Advisors exists to help people with problem debt by giving them information on the options open to them and negotiating on their behalf with creditors and bailiffs. All the advice they give and support they offer is free of charge, so there is nothing to lose. If you are struggling with council tax debt, don’t wait for a visit from the bailiffs. Get in touch with Council Tax Advisors today and start to take back control.
Debt Camel adds: council tax debts are “priority debts“. If you have other debts such as loans or credit cards, you may need to pay less to them so you can repay any council tax arrears quickly.