When it comes to finances, there aren’t many words that inspire as much fear and anxiety as “bailiff.”
While it’s right to be concerned about bailiffs and similar enforcement agents, it’s also important to understand that they have to follow very strict rules about how they carry out their work and how they treat you.
What is a bailiff?
Firstly, it’s useful to know the most up-to-date name for bailiffs. Today, a bailiff is officially referred to as a “Certificated Enforcement Agent” – so that’s often the name you’ll see on official paperwork and how they would introduce themselves if they came to your home.
Aside from the name change, their role is still the same. They are authorised agents who are hired by a court or a creditor (a company you owe money to) to collect debts. If there is no other option, they will take certain things you own to be sold, with the money paying off some or all of what you owe.
In some circumstances, bailiffs can force entry to your home or business. However, there are very strict rules around when and how they can do this.
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What kinds of debts can bailiffs collect?
Since bailiffs can be hired by either the court or companies, the range of debts they can be asked to collect is very large. Common debts they will try to collect include:
- Council tax arrears
- Unpaid criminal fines
- Unpaid county court judgments
- Unpaid income tax
- Child support arrears
- National insurance
- Business rent
- VAT Magistrate court fines
Bailiffs may visit your home for a range of other reasons too, including:
- Enforcing evictions
- Supporting engineers to change meters or cut-off energy supplies
- Recovering repossessed finance goods (such as hire purchase cars)
- To serve court documents
Are there different kinds of bailiffs?
There are different bailiffs with slightly different powers operating in the UK. The three most common types that relate to finances are a county court bailiff, a high court enforcement officer, and a certificated enforcement agent.
Let’s take a look at each in a little more detail:
County court bailiffs
Bailiffs instructed by the local county court are referred to as county court bailiffs. You’re most likely to meet this kind of bailiff if they are enforcing a county court judgment – a court order telling you to repay money that’s owed to a creditor.
High court enforcement officers
A high court enforcement officer is someone who acts on the instruction of the high court. Typically, their role will involve collecting unpaid debts and – if you’re not able to pay – taking certain possessions to be sold as a way of paying towards your debts.
Certificated enforcement agents
A certificated enforcement agent is someone who has the qualifications needed to be a bailiff but doesn’t work directly for a court. Instead, they will often be hired by private companies or individuals to recover debts, evict tenants, and carry out similar tasks.
Differences between England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland
The terms we’ve looked at above apply in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, different names are used to describe bailiffs in Scotland.
Rather than “bailiffs”, enforcement agents in Scotland are called “Sheriff Officers.” They have similar official roles to bailiffs in the rest of the UK.
IMPORTANT: Debt collectors are NOT the same as bailiffs
A lot of people think that debt collectors and bailiffs are the same things. It’s very important to understand that they are not the same and have very different roles and rights.
Debt collectors generally work for a debt collection agency. Essentially, they have the same powers as a debt collection agent you’d speak to over the phone. However, because they will sometimes visit your home, people assume they have the right to enter your property or take things that belong to you. This is not the case.
Bailiffs acting on behalf of a court or a company will always carry a certificate to show you that they are part of the Certificated Bailiff Register. If you’re unsure, you can call and speak to the court they represent or check their name and who they work for using the Certified Bailiff Register website.
If a debt collector tells you they are a bailiff (for example, a family court bailiff or a civilian enforcement officer) or tries to carry out any action that only bailiffs can, they are committing a criminal offence, and you should call 999 and report them to the police.
What can bailiffs do?
If you’ve seen programmes on TV showing bailiffs in action, you might be under the impression that they can turn up at your house unannounced – but this is not the case.
Any bailiff visit will only happen after a notice of enforcement is served. This means you’ll get a letter at least 7 days before a bailiff visits. The letter will either come in the post or be hand delivered (served) to you.
When a bailiff comes to your home, they are required by law to:
- Show you their official identification
- Explain why they’re visiting and who they represent
- Ask your permission to enter your home
- Go into your home without your permission
- Enter your home if the only person at home is 16 years or under or a vulnerable adult
- Force entry – unless they’re collecting tax or a criminal fine or removing goods after you’ve breached a previous controlled goods agreement
- Force entry unless they have a magistrates’ court warrant
- Visit your property before 6 am or after 9 pm
- Visit your home during a public holiday
- Enter through any means other than a door
Can bailiffs force entry?
When people think of bailiffs forcing entry to a home, they might think of people being pushed out of the way or doors kicked through. This is definitely not the case however – bailiffs can never use physical force against someone they visit, and they cannot break down doors.
However, there are times when a bailiff can break into your home – usually with the help of a locksmith. This would only happen if:
- They are seizing goods (the things you own) if they’ve been moved to a different property or building
- If they have a warrant that allows them to do so
- If they have previously gained peaceful entry to your home
It’s important to understand that a bailiff opening an unlocked door or gate on your property is not considered ‘forcing entry’. Therefore, it is possible that a bailiff could enter your home if a door is left unlocked.
What happens if bailiffs do come into your home peacefully?
When a bailiff enters your home, what they can and can’t do changes. If they’re already in your home, they can go anywhere they wish and list items that they might be able to take away to sell.
If bailiffs are in your home, they should be acting in a calm and polite way. Usually, they will ask questions about what does and doesn’t belong to you. If there’s anything that’s not yours, they will normally ask you to prove that’s the case. This is part of making a ‘controlled goods agreement’ – a list of things that may be taken if you don’t pay.
Although people usually think of bailiffs as people who’ll just take your things away, they actually prefer if you can pay what you owe with money – either as cash or using a card.
As such, they will often be keen to chat with you about paying the debt in full on the day. If you cannot, they may be willing to talk about weekly or monthly payments (although this will need to be approved by their head office and possibly the creditor you owe).
If I can’t or won’t pay, what can bailiffs take?
If you allow bailiffs to enter your home, they are legally allowed to start taking your possessions if you cannot come to an agreement to pay that they or the creditor is happy with.
Although there are lots of things they can take, there are also plenty of things the law says they’re not allowed to take.
Things a bailiff can take to sell
- Computers/laptops/tablet computers
- Games consoles
- Bicycles and fitness equipment
- Art/collectables/expensive ornaments and items
Things a bailiff cannot take to sell
- Essential furniture items (beds, sofas, etc.)
- Whites goods (washer, cooker, etc.)
- Things you need for work or study – such as laptops, etc. – as long as the value is less than £1,350
- Children’s toys
Can a bailiff take a car, motorbike, caravan, or motorhome?
The rules around cars are different to the rules that are around things inside your home. Firstly, even if you don’t let a bailiff in, they can still potentially clamp or take your car.
For this reason, people will often move their car so a bailiff cannot find it if they visit. This stops bailiffs from immobilising or taking your car when you’re not there.
The rules around taking cars or other motor vehicles explain that a vehicle cannot be taken if:
- the car is being paid for on finance or lease (as you do not legally own the car)
- you have a blue disability badge
- the vehicle is your main home (i.e. a caravan or motorhome that you live in)
- you need the car for your job, and it’s worth no more than £1,350
If none of those factors applies, a vehicle can be taken. When vehicles are sold to recover money owed, they are usually sold at auction, which means they make a far lower price than you may have bought it for. However, if any money is left over after your car is sold, the bailiffs will let you know and have this money returned to you.
Does a bailiff coming mean I now owe more than I did originally?
Unfortunately, there are a lot of costs involved with the debt collection and bailiff recovery process. This means the amount you owe can go up a lot if bailiffs have to get involved.
These work on a sliding scale – so the more you owe, the more the bailiff company will take to carry out the recovery work. For a small debt, say one that’s around £1,000, you might expect to pay an additional £300-£400 on top of the original debt. For larger debts, this can be significantly more – and there is another large fee taken if bailiffs have to sell your possessions too.
Will bailiffs eventually give up and go away?
Bailiffs are paid to collect debts – and since they usually have a court order meaning they have powers to make sure that happens, it’s very unlikely that they’ll give up and go away.
If you don’t let a bailiff in or refuse to talk to them, they will eventually go away from their first visit. However, each visit is likely to attract another fee, which you will ultimately have to pay.
The only way to make sure a bailiff goes for good is to come to a payment arrangement or talk to a debt solution company about a debt solution that they will handle on your behalf.
Here’s an example of how we can help
Let’s say you owe..
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Total amount owed:
After an IVA
Example case completed in 2023. Repayment calculated using income and expenditure data. Monthly payments and write off percentages are based on individual circumstances.
How could a debt solution help?
Some debt solutions are referred as “formal agreements” – which means when they are set up, they are legal agreements between you and any companies you owe money to.
Debt solutions like this (such as IVAs) stop any collection or legal action that’s currently in place – then an Insolvency Practitioner (IP) handles your debts on your behalf. Typically, you’ll make one affordable monthly payment, and the IP handles paying what you owe before sometimes writing off any debt that’s not paid after a certain amount of time.
Because these kinds of debt solutions stop any legal action, it means that bailiff action is also stopped. Debt solutions aren’t right for everyone – but if you think you might be threatened with bailiffs, it can be a good time to explore your options.