Other legal protection if you are in debt
There are several laws and regulations designed to make sure that any credit deals you sign up to are fair, and any organisations you owe money to behave reasonably.
Unfair Credit Relationships
The Consumer Credit Act allows the court to intervene if the relationship between you and a creditor (including a mortgage lender) is unfair. If you think this might apply to an agreement you have, you should get expert advice from an adviser, the trading standards department at your local council, or Consumer Direct.
Unfair contract terms
When you sign a contract for credit, or to buy something, it should spell out all the terms and conditions of the deal. A company may not be able to enforce any part of a contract that is not in plain English or that is unfair (but this doesn't apply to the main price of the goods or service).
These regulations prevent lenders from:
- charging much higher interest to customers who have missed payments; and
- taking customers by surprise with unexpected or hidden small print or unclear wording in agreements.
If you think there is a term in a credit agreement which you weren't aware of when you took it out or that wasn't clear contact an adviser, the trading standards department at your local council, or Consumer Direct.
Anyone who offers credit or collects debts must have a licence from the Office of Fair Trading. Credit providers and debt collectors can legally enforce the terms of their credit agreements only if they had a licence when you signed the agreement.
Most credit agreements that consumers sign are 'regulated agreements' under the Consumer Credit Act. This means that they must be in writing and must explain, among other things:
- the amount of money you are borrowing;
- the interest rate; and
- how long you will be paying the debt back.
You can get advice on other details of the Consumer Credit Act from, for example:
- an adviser or solicitor;
- the trading standards department at your local council;
- Consumer Direct; or
- a Citizens Advice Bureau or advice centre.
Pressure to sign
A creditor may not be able to make you repay a loan if you have been put under a lot of pressure from someone you know to sign up for it. The most likely situation is if your husband or wife or partner persuaded you to sign a secured loan agreement (a mortgage, for example) which was entirely for their business. But you must also show that the lender didn't explain to you how the loan worked, and that they should have told you to get independent advice before signing.
This law is complicated, so if you are in this situation, you will need to get specialist legal advice.
The Limitations Act 1980 gives creditors a maximum amount of time to start legal proceedings after the last payment or written acknowledgement (note or letter) from the debtor. For most debts, this is six years, or 12 years for mortgages. If you have not paid anything towards a debt or 'acknowledged the debt' in writing (for example, by writing to the creditor about the debt) for more than six years, you should get specialist advice before you speak to the creditor about an arrangement to pay what you owe.
Harassment to repay
It is a criminal offence for a creditor to harass (bully or repeatedly annoy) you to get you to repay. Harassment includes:
- threatening you with a criminal prosecution when you can't be prosecuted;
- pretending to be a court official;
- sending letters that look like court forms; and
- telling other people, such as neighbours and your employer, about your debt to force you to pay.
If you are being harassed, keep a record of exactly what has happened and when, and report it to your local trading standards department at your local council or to Consumer Direct. A creditor or debt collection agency could have its credit licence taken away if it is found guilty of harassing you.
If a creditor take court action against you without taking resonable steps to come to a realistic payment arrangement with you, you could defend (argue that you should not have to pay) the part of the creditor's claim that is for the court fee and costs.
Additional sections in the Community Legal Advice leaflet 'Dealing with Debt':
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- Community Legal Advice