If you have missed some payments on your debts, you may be worried that you are going to have to go to court. Perhaps you have received scary letters from a debt collector demanding payments. These may threaten defaults, county court judgments (CCJs) and bailiffs taking your possessions. Sometimes they are bluffing, but the number of CCJs is rising, in the first quarter of 2015 there were 209,000 – up 20% on the same time a year ago.
This article covers consumer debts such as credit cards, loans and catalogue debts. It doesn’t apply to debts such as council tax, rent arrears and tax owing to HMRC – these are priority debts and you need to take action urgently.
Have you received a Default Notice?
A creditor can’t take you to court unless a formal Default Notice has been issued. A Default Notice is a formal letter from your creditor informing you that unless you bring your account up to date within 14 days a Default will be made. A Default Notice won’t be issued immediately you miss a payment – creditors usually wait 3-6 months.
As soon as you miss a payment, it will be reported to Experian or the other Credit Reference Agencies. After a few months your credit record at the Credit Reference Agencies may be marked as “in default” but, confusingly, this isn’t the same as a “Default Notice”. Read What should the default date for a debt be? if you would like to know more about defaults on your credit file.
Receiving a Default Notice letter does not mean that you will definitely get a county court judgment. If you can’t pay the balance required, you can still make an offer of repayment. If this is accepted the creditor will not proceed to court action.
The Ministry of Justice has recently looked at when creditors decide to go to court. Creditors said
- “Debt recovery claimants would try to engage with the debtor and negotiate a settlement (including through the offer of repayment plans) before considering issuing a claim in the courts”
- “Customer profiling at the prelitigation stage ensured that claims were only issued where there was a high probability that the debtor could repay the debt (and the court costs incurred)”
In other words, if you talk to the bank or debt collector, court action isn’t likely. There is more chance of being taken to court if you have a house or a well-paid job than if you are unemployed.
If the debt is very old and you haven’t made payments to it or acknowledged it for over six years, the creditor may not be able to take legal action. This is a complicated area, if you think it might apply to your debt, read Statute Barred Debt – that article has a template letter you could use.
Sending a bailiff round
Unless you already have a County Court Judgment, this is a bluff! For consumer debts, a bailiff can only be sent round if
- the creditor has obtained a CCJ AND
- you don’t comply with the terms of the CCJ.
If you get panicked by letters and court forms and try to ignore them, then bailiffs could be the end result. But if you try to deal with your creditors and any Claim Forms you receive, you shouldn’t need to worry about bailiffs.
Home visit from a debt collector
This is possible in theory but very rare. As I said above, creditors don’t like spending money and it’s much cheaper to write you letters or phone you than send someone round when you might not even be there! In the unlikely event that someone does knock on your door, then you don’t have to let them in or talk to them at all. They are not allowed to talk to your neighbours or anyone else in your house about your account.
What you need to do
Even though the threats in the debt collector letters may well be bluffs, it’s not safe to ignore them. To avoid the escalation from late payments to CCJs and bailiffs, you need to make an offer of a monthly payment to your creditor – ignore the fact that the letter is demanding immediate payments in full, contact your creditor and make a realistic offer.
The more you talk and the more co-operative you are, the less likely court action will be taken. Legally you don’t have to explain to your creditor why you have missed a couple of months payments, nor supply them with details of your income and expenditure – but if you do, then you are more likely to be able to negotiate a repayment plan.
It’s important that you don’t promise creditors more than you can afford. And if you have more than one creditor, they all need to be treated fairly. If you promise all your spare income to the first debt collector that calls you, what are you going to say to the next one?
Unless your difficulty is very temporary, you need to think through your whole debt situation:
- Read up about your debt options and priority debts. If in doubt, a Debt Management Plan is often a sensible holding move;
- Don’t let cross phone calls or scary letters rush you into something you aren’t certain about;
- Don’t stop paying priority debts such as your rent or council tax because a bank or debt collector is threating a county court judgment – that will cause much bigger problems in future.
If you are still worried or uncertain
StepChange are a great source of advice on how to deal with your creditors. They can help you look at whether a debt management plan is a good option for you, or what your other alternatives are.