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38% hike in bailiff problems prompts call for clampdown on lawless practices

27 January 2013

Lack of sanctions leaves "open door for abuse of power" by bailiffs.

Citizens Advice is calling on the Government to introduce a ‘licence to enforce’ for bailiff firms, after new figures show a 38% increase in problems with private bailiffs over the last 5 years.

The new figures reveal that in 2007/08 Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales dealt with over 40,900 problems with private bailiffs – rising dramatically to more than 56,300 in 2011/12¹.

In the last 12 months Citizens Advice has also seen a surge in people seeking online help to deal with bailiffs – with 2.5 times more people getting online advice about bailiffs in December 2012 (9,894 unique users) and compared to  December 2011 (3,784).

Evidence from Citizens Advice reveals bailiffs frequently overstate their powers and often behave aggressively to those in debt.

Newly released figures from a detailed analysis of over 400 cases where private bailiffs were called in to collect debts found that bailiffs aren’t abiding by the law:

  • 2 in 5 (39%) threatened the use of force to get in
  • 16% said they would call the police to gain entry
  • 1 in 4 threatened to take items that are banned from removal by bailiffs (such as clothing or work tools)
  • 29% threatened to seize goods that belonged to someone else.

Citizens Advice warns the impact of lawless bailiff action can have a devastating effect on people’s lives. The analysis finds that in almost 4 out of 5 (78%) of the cases bailiff action has brought on stress and anxiety and in 35% it has exacerbated their mental or physical health problems (23% and 12% respectively).

On average bailiff fees increase people’s debts by over a third (36%) – putting extra pressure on those who can’t afford to pay their bills. Citizens Advice see one problem with bailiffs for every 55 debts they are trying to enforce.

A third of all bailiff problems dealt with by Citizens Advice are for the collection of council tax debt. Citizens Advice expects to see a significant increase later this year as changes to council tax benefits, which come in April, will see some people having to pay council tax for the first time ever.  

Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy said:

"It’s clear that some bailiffs think they’re above the law – they’re not. The nature of the industry is an open door for abuse of power  Bad practice is blamed on ‘rogue’ individuals but the only way to stop this is to hold bailiff firms accountable.

"Our bureaux see a huge void between what bailiffs are legally allowed to do and what many actually do. It’s absurd that there are no official sanctions to keep bailiffs in check.

"We want to see a licence introduced for bailiff firms so if they’re found to be acting outside of the law then their licence is revoked."

Citizens Advice advocates for statutory regulation of bailiffs which would provide:

  • centralised system for bailiffs to apply for a licence
  • the regulator would set and monitor compliance with standards
  • would have power to order redress and compensation
  • centralised complaints monitoring and publication of complaints data
  • an independent complaints process (cost- free procedure for consumers).

The licence for bailiff firms should replace the current practice of county court certificates for individual bailiffs. It  would work in a similar way to the consumer credit licence that debt collectors have to hold.

An introduction of a licence will force firms to take responsibility for how bailiffs behave; making sure they are acting fairly and in accordance with the law. It will be easier to encourage good practice and not let firms off the hook by attributing problem to a small number of ‘rogue’ bailiffs.

In the Coalition Agreement the Government promised to ‘provide more protection against aggressive bailiffs’ and plans to extend the certification process.

Evidence from Citizens Advice Bureaux shows the certification process has fundamentally failed to protect vulnerable people in debt from predatory bailiffs who are overstating their powers and often charging people fees for visits they’ve never made.

In 2012 Citizens Advice dealt with over 63,000 problems with bailiffs in England and Wales. Almost 9 in 10 (87%) were about issues with private bailiffs.

Anyone who is struggling with debt or has been contacted by bailiffs can get free, impartial advice from their local Citizens Advice Bureaux or find out their rights online at www.adviceguide.org.uk

What bailiffs can’t take

Goods private bailiffs aren’t allowed to take:

  • clothing
  • bedding
  • household equipment
  • furniture necessary to satisfy basic domestic needs
  • and those tools, books, vehicles and other equipment which are necessary for the client's work (unless the bailiff is collecting business rates)
  • only goods belonging to the person in debt can be taken
  • items that are on hire purchase cannot be taken (but may be if collecting for child support).

There are different rules for bailiffs collecting magistrates fines - get advice on this from your local bureau.

Bailiff fact file

  • There has been a 38% increase in problems with private bailiffs in the last five years (data from 07/08 to 11/12).
  • In 2012 there were over 63,000 problems about all types of bailiffs reported to Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales.
  • Almost 9 in 10 problems with bailiffs relate to private bailiffs who are responsible for collecting debts including council tax debts and unpaid parking penalties
  • Citizens Advice deals with more problems around bailiffs during the period after Christmas (January to March) than any other time of the year.  
  • Between January and March 2012 there were almost 18,000 problems reported with bailiffs (17,987) – that’s a 5% increase compared to the same period last year.
  • Problems with private bailiffs collecting council tax debts make up a third of all problems with bailiffs and 39% of problems with private bailiffs.

Notes to editors

  1. Case statistics from Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales looking specifically at private bailiffs who enforce debts for council tax arrears, unpaid parking penalties, magistrate court fines and maintenance and child support arrears.
  2. Source for 3.5 million bailiff actions. Ministry of Justice consultation on transforming bailiff action. Page 6 of Impact Assessment https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/transforming-bailiff-action
  3. The analysis of 478 cases provided by advisers from Citizens Advice Bureaux, National Debtline, Institute of Money Avisers, AdviceUK and StepChange was carried out between 5th July to 3rd August 2012.
  4. The Citizens Advice service comprises a network of local bureaux, all of which are independent charities, and national charity Citizens Advice. Together we helppeople resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers. For more information in England and Wales see www.citizensadvice.org.uk
  5. The advice provided by the Citizens Advice service is free, independent, confidential, and impartial, and available to everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality. For online advice and information see www.adviceguide.org.uk
  6. Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales advised 2.1 million clients on 6.9 million problems from April 2011 to March 2012. For full 2011/2012 service statistics see: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/press_statistics
  7. Out of 22 national charities, the Citizens Advice service is ranked by the general public as being the most helpful, approachable, professional, informative, effective / cost effective, reputable and accountable. (nfpSynergy’s Brand Attributes survey, May 2010).
  8. Most Citizens Advice service staff are trained volunteers, working at around 3,500 service outlets across England and Wales.