Being in a position where you have to deal with debt collectors and bailiffs can be difficult. However, even if you owe money and are in debt, there are still rules about how you can be treated. It’s important to know your rights if you’re threatened with bailiffs because there are only very specific circumstances in which someone can enter your home and remove your belongings. Unfortunately, many companies and over-zealous councils have taken this too far and individuals who don’t know their rights have been unable to stop them as a result.
What are debt collectors and bailiffs?
The two terms are often used interchangeably but in reality, they are very different:
This is someone who will come to your home to collect a debt on behalf of a debt collection agency. That agency may be working on behalf of a lender or someone else who you owe money to. Debt collectors are rarely used these days as they have no power to remove anything from your home. Debt collectors can:
Come to your home
Ask you to make a repayment on the debt
Try to set up a payment arrangement
Debt collectors cannot come into your home without your permission, come to your workplace, take anything, intimidate or threaten or pretend to be a bailiff.
It is the bailiffs (or enforcement agents) who have the legal powers to remove items from your home – but only if they have a court order. Bailiffs are used by the courts in various circumstances, such as where there has been non-payment of council tax, parking fines or County Court Judgments. Bailiffs can:
Take items from inside your home if you let them in
Remove items from outside of your home if you do not let them in (for example, your car)
Receive payment in cash for a debt owed (make sure you get a receipt)
Ask to see ID – note down their name, as well as the debt that they’re here to collect and the creditor they’re collecting on behalf of
If you don’t want to open the door to a debt collector then don’t – you’re not under any obligation to do so
On the whole, it’s better to pay your creditor directly than to hand over any cash to a debt collector on your doorstep (an exception to this, of course, is if you have a credit agreement with a doorstep lender like Provident)
What to do if a bailiff visits you
Bailiffs must have a court order – find out which court sent them and ask for details of the court order. If there is no court order then the bailiffs have no legal right to take anything. The only exception is if they are collecting on behalf of HMRC.
Bailiffs must give you at least seven days notice before a first visit. They cannot enter your home by force, they cannot come in other than by the door, between the hours of 9 pm and 6 am or if only under 16s are present. If you know the bailiffs are coming then keep the doors locked and make sure everyone in the household knows not to let in anyone that you don’t know.
You should always ask to see a bailiff’s ID. This could be a badge, ID card or enforcement agent certificate. You’re entitled to ask for exact amounts owed, as well as which company they are from and what the contact details are for that company. Don’t be afraid to take the time to check up on the bailiffs – for example, if they say they are a county court bailiff check with the court they say sent them. If they say they are a certificated enforcement agent you can check this on the register of certified bailiffs.
What bailiffs can take – luxury items such as TVs or games consoles.
What bailiffs cannot take – anything that you need to live. For example, they cannot take your clothes or your fridge. They also cannot take items that don’t belong to you (you would have to be able to prove this).
A controlled goods agreement. Bailiffs won’t normally remove items from your home the first time that they visit. They will usually make an inventory of what is there and you may be asked to sign a controlled goods agreement and make a debt repayment plan. This effectively means that if you don’t stick to the debt repayment plan then the items listed under the controlled goods agreement can be taken.
If you have been contacted by bailiffs it’s important that you don’t ignore the situation. Bailiffs charge fees for their visits and these can escalate quickly, especially if there are repeated visits when they can’t get in. You will need to take steps to deal with the debt in a way that you can manage. If you feel that you’ve been treated unfairly by bailiffs, or that they haven’t followed the rules then you can make a complaint. MPs recently criticised councils for over-zealous use of bailiffs and there is increasingly a view that the debt collection industry needs to be better controlled and managed so things could change in the future. However, for now, the basic rules are as outlined above.
Alex Hartley is a keen advocate of improving personal finance skills. She's worked at Solution Loans since 2014 and written hundreds of articles about how people can manage their money better. Her interest in personal finance goes way back to...Read more about Alex Hartley