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Time for action on bailiff regulation as charities reveal rules are broken every minute

13 November 2018

Rule-breaking bailiffs are causing people increased stress, anxiety and financial hardship, according to new research published today by Citizens Advice and StepChange. 

The charities are calling for the government to step in and regulate the industry to prevent more people suffering at the hands of debt collectors who flout the rules.

New figures reveal that one third (850,000) of the 2.2 million people contacted by a bailiff in the last two years experienced them pushing the limits of the law - such as by forcing entry into a home or removing goods needed for work. 

This works out as one person every minute being forced to deal with a rule-breaking bailiff.

Citizens Advice broke down the impact this has on people’s mental health and financial position. It found of those who had a negative experience with a bailiff: 

  • 7 in 10 reported increased stress and anxiety
  • 1 in 2 experienced knock-on effects on their finances, including further debt due to enforcement fees

The findings suggest the government reforms introduced in 2014 to protect people from unfair practices are not working. Since then, Citizens Advice has reported a 24% rise in bailiff problems, and it remains one of the most common debt issues it helps people with. 

The rules bailiffs are breaking

The national polling carried out by YouGov reveals when people were affected by - or witnessed - a bailiff breaking the rules: 

  • 1 in 5 (18%) witnessed unsympathetic treatment towards people with an illness/disability
  • 1 in 6 (17%) had a break-in threatened (when bailiffs don’t have legal powers to do this)
  • 1 in 10 (11%) had goods needed for their work removed, for example tools or a vehicle
  • 1 in 16 (6%) had entry forced into their home.

Citizens Advice analysed these figures and is also concerned bailiffs demonstrate poor practice by refusing to accept reasonable offers of payment when the debt is unable to be paid in full. It helped people with nearly 17,000 issues associated with a refusal to accept payment offers last year. 

In one example, Citizens Advice helped a person with depression who fell behind on their council tax two years in a row. This debt amounted to about £1,000. After food and other essential expenses, they have £40 available income each month with half (£20) being used to meet the cost of the first year’s council tax debt. Recently, they made an offer to repay the other debt with the remaining £20 of available income. But the offer was refused and the bailiff insisted on asking for repayment in full. 

The charity’s data shows that this situation is not unusual. The average person it helped with council tax last year had just £15 a week disposable income.

It’s time to solve this problem

Bailiff issues are part of a wider problem of households falling behind on essential bills. Citizens Advice estimates households have a total of £19 billion of arrears on bills such as council tax and utilities. Since 2011, these debt issues have overtaken the number of consumer credit issues (e.g. loans and credit cards) that people are seeking the charity’s help with. 

The impact of bailiff use has also been highlighted this year by MPs on the Treasury Select Committee, who labelled government and local authorities “worst in class” for debt collection. In September, the National Audit Office said there was evidence that aggressive enforcement action is ineffective, and can be harmful in situations where the debtor is struggling to pay.

Citizens Advice, StepChange and the other 9 organisations that make up the ‘Taking Control’ group are calling for an independent body to be introduced to enforce high standards in the bailiff industry. 

Through the Ministry of Justice’s upcoming consultation on the enforcement industry, the group wants to see an independent bailiff regulator established. 

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“Too often bailiffs, and the firms they work for, are a law unto themselves. This is inflicting widespread harm on people and their families and it has to stop.

“The 2014 reforms were well intentioned but sadly have had little effect on improving the behaviour of some bailiffs.

“Faced with the evidence we’ve put in front of them, the Ministry of Justice has no other option but to establish an independent bailiff regulator.”

Phil Andrew, StepChange Debt Charity Chief Executive, added:

“The fact is that all the main debt advice charities are continuing to see too many cases where bailiffs are breaking the rules. This is completely unacceptable, especially as the people on the receiving end are often distressed, vulnerable and unempowered.

“Across the debt advice sector, we are united in the view that it’s now time for regulation to be more robust, and for the rules to be properly enforced. Even some bailiff firms seem to be realising that the days of informal regulation need to end.”

Notes to editors

  1. Citizens Advice has published this research in its new report ‘A law unto themselves: How bailiffs are breaking the rules’.

  2. In our national polling, co-commissioned with StepChange Debt Charity and conducted by YouGov, we asked 5786 people in England and Wales if they had been contacted by bailiffs.

  3. 277 people stated that they had been personally contacted by bailiffs. Of these 39% (107) people answered that they had seen bailiffs do one or more of the following:  ‘bailiffs breaking into the property’, ‘threats to break into the property’ , ‘bailiffs taking goods that were required for my livelihood’, and ‘bailiffs dealing unsympathetically with disabilities/ illnesses’. We discounted debtors from this number where bailiffs could legitimately break into the property as they held a warrant or magistrates’ court fine.

  4. As our polling was nationally representative we aggregated this number to reflect the ONS estimate of the adult population of England and Wales (46.25 million) to find that 2.2 million people were contacted by bailiffs in the last two years, with 850,000 experiencing a bailiff breaking the rules. This is likely to be an underestimate. Money Advice Trust research found that 2.3 million debts were passed to bailiffs in 2017. Our polling relied on people recalling an interaction with bailiff in the last two years and - due to stigma associated with indebtedness - may have been underreported.

  5. As part of the package of reforms introduced in 2014, the National Standards state that bailiffs ‘should not press people to make unrealistic offers’ and should ‘refer reasonable offers onto the creditor’. This does not appear to be happening in practice.

  6. 1.84% of those within our nationally weighted polled had personal experience of bailiffs breaking the rules within the last two years. When extrapolated to the adult England and Wales population (46.25 million), we can estimate that 850,000 are experiencing these rules breaks nationally over a two year period, equaling 425,000 per year. Enforcement agents operate between the hours of 6am-9pm, 7 days a week, thus we can estimate that approximately 78 individuals are contacted by bailiffs every hour resulting in more than 1 per minute.

  7. CItizens Advice is the largest provider of free, multi-channel debt advice. Debt is the second most common issue we help people with and accounted for 1 in 4 of the problems we helped people with last year. Providing that help gives Citizens Advice unique insight into the types of debts people struggle with.

  8. Citizens Advice published Hidden Debts in August estimating households estimates the total level of household bill debt - owed to essential service providers and government - to be nearly £19 billion. It also responded to the Treasury Select Committee and National Audit Office reports.

  9. Citizens Advice is made up of the national charity Citizens Advice; the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales; the Citizens Advice consumer service; and the Witness Service.

  10. Together we help people resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers.

  11. Citizens Advice is the statutory consumer advocate for energy and postal markets. We provide supplier performance information to consumers and policy analysis to decision makers.

  12. The Citizens Advice Witness Service provides free and independent support for both prosecution and defence witnesses in every criminal court in England and Wales.

  13. Citizens Advice also offers Pension Wise appointments at 500 locations across England and Wales.

  14. 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.

  15. To get advice online or find your local Citizens Advice in England and Wales, visit 

  16. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or 03454 04 05 05 for Welsh language speakers.

  17. We helped 2.6 million people face to face, over the phone, by email and webchat in 2017-18. For full service statistics see our monthly publication Advice trends.

  18. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 23,000 trained volunteers, working at over 2,500 service outlets across England and Wales.