Dealing with bailiffs
With most debts, bailiffs are involved only if you can't come to an arrangement to repay a creditor, and then only after your case has been to court. However, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) bailiffs can act without waiting for a repayment arrangement or a court hearing.
Once bailiffs are involved it can be difficult to negotiate with them. Bailiffs usually work by threatening to take your possessions to persuade you to pay what you owe, or taking and selling them to repay your debt.
You may believe bailiffs are allowed to force their way into your home, but they are normally allowed to do this only because of debts from unpaid fines. If it is another kind of debt, they may force their way into your home only if they have been inside your home for the same debt on an earlier occasion.
If you allow a bailiff to come into your home, they will usually take 'walking possession' of some of your belongings. This means that if you cannot negotiate acceptable payments, with the bailiff, or you miss payments that you have agreed with the bailiff they can legally force entry into your home and take those items away. So if you never let the bailiff into your home, they may never be able to take walking possession of your belongings inside it. However, they will be able to take belongings outside your home (a car, for example).
For most types of debt, a bailiff can't take away 'basic household items'. These include a bed, cooker, fridge and most furniture. However, they can take, for example, a television or other less necessary items.
County court bailiffs
If you have a county court judgment (CCJ) and you don't make the payments as ordered, the creditor can ask the court to issue a 'warrant of execution'. This will involve county court bailiffs. But you can ask the court to stop them by filling in a form at your local county court, with a statement about what you can afford to pay.
County court bailiffs also carry out evictions after possession proceedings (see 'Rent or mortgage payment problems'). This is the main situation in which you cannot physically stop bailiffs from coming into your home, but again you can ask the court to do so.
It's important to realise that debt collectors are not the same as bailiffs. Debt collectors cannot take any direct action against you, apart from asking you to pay. If you believe a debt collector is harassing you, or putting undue pressure on you to pay, contact the trading standards department at your local council, or Consumer Direct (see 'Further Help' for details). If you are being physically threatened, contact the police.
Bailiffs and the Human Rights Act
The Human Rights Act, is a relatively new law, and it may mean bailiffs are used less frequently. Part of the Act protects your right to 'peaceful enjoyment of possessions and respect for your privacy, family life and home'.
In practice, this should mean that courts and public authorities use bailiffs as a last resort, and should consider using less intrusive and distressing ways of getting you to pay what you owe. These include:
- benefit deductions;
- attachment of earnings; and
- voluntary payment arrangements.
Additional sections in the Community Legal Advice leaflet 'Dealing with Debt':
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