This fact sheet covers England & Wales. You will need different advice if you live in Scotland.
Use this fact sheet to:
- understand the sorts of debt that are collected by private bailiffs;
- find out about the guidelines that apply to them; and
- find out about the different ways of making a complaint.
The sample letters mentioned in this fact sheet can be filled in on our website.
Debt collection agencies
Sometimes creditors will use debt collection agencies to ask you to pay what you owe. Debt collection agencies are usually asked to act for the creditor before a creditor takes court action against you. They are not bailiffs and have no right to take your goods or to come into your home. Before using this fact sheet, check whether you are dealing with a debt collection agency or bailiff. If you are not sure, contact us for advice.
Terms used to describe bailiffs
Bailiffs are also commonly known as enforcement agents. In this fact sheet we use the term bailiff.
This fact sheet deals with complaints about private bailiffs. It does not apply to complaints about county court bailiffs or High Court Enforcement Officers. If you have a complaint about a county court bailiff or High Court Enforcement Officer, contact us for advice.
- Creditors can only use private bailiffs as their agents in certain circumstances. A private bailiff can be employed by a creditor to try to remove your goods. Private bailiffs can usually only be asked to collect a debt after a creditor has taken court action against you.
- Councils can only use bailiffs to collect business rates or council tax arrears after they have got a liability order against you.
- Councils can only use bailiffs to collect unpaid parking penalty charges after they have got an order for recovery through the Traffic Enforcement Centre (part of the County Court).
- The Child Support Agency or the Child Maintenance Service can only use bailiffs to collect child support arrears after they have got a liability order against you.
- Magistrates’ court bailiffs can only be used after you have got a fine from the magistrates’ court.
- If bailiffs remove goods, those goods may be sold to raise money to pay what you owe.
- In this fact sheet, the term ‘creditor’ is used to describe the local authority, the Child Support Agency or whichever organisation has instructed the bailiff to act.
You will often have chance to negotiate with the creditor before bailiffs can be used. Contact us for advice about the options you have to deal with your debt and to avoid bailiff action.
On 6 April 2014, changes were made to bailiff law. Under the new rules, it appears that most bailiffs do not have the right to force entry to your home unless you have let them in peacefully before and they have followed the correct procedures. If the bailiffs have already been into your home, get help to check whether they have followed the new rules correctly. If you are unsure about your rights, or if bailiffs threaten to come into your home when they have not been in before, contact us for advice.
Get advice first. Bailiff law is very complex, and even if you think what the bailiffs have done is unfair, they may still be acting within the law.
If you need time to get debt advice and find a debt solution, you may want to consider applying for breathing space. Breathing space will stop most types of enforcement, and also stop most creditors applying interest and charges, for 60 days.
To find out more, see our Breathing space fact sheet.
If you are unhappy with the way a bailiff has treated you, you have a right to complain. This does not always mean you will be successful. But it does mean that your views should be heard. Common examples of things that you could complain about include the following.
- Bailiffs being threatening or aggressive.
- Bailiffs telling you that they have the power to do things when they do not.
- Bailiffs charging you more in fees than the law allows.
- Bailiffs giving you unclear or misleading information about your rights.
- Bailiffs not taking your circumstances into account when negotiating with you.
- Bailiffs trying to take goods that do not belong to you.
- Bailiffs trying to take goods that the law says they shouldn’t take.
Share your experience about bailiff action anonymously on www.bailiffreform.org by filling in a simple form. We will share these stories with Ministers and MPs and ask them to look at reforming the rules on what bailiffs can do.
Contact before complaining
Before making a complaint, contact us for advice to see if you have grounds for making a complaint.
Taking Control of Goods: National Standards
The Ministry of Justice has issued guidelines called 'Taking Control of Goods: National Standards'. These apply to all types of bailiffs and describe how they are expected to behave. The guidelines are not legally binding. This means that if a bailiff breaks the guidelines, they are not breaking the law. However, because the guidelines describe how bailiffs should behave, they are useful to mention when making a complaint.
The guidelines explain that the bailiffs should:
- act within the law at all times;
- not say they can do things when the law does not allow them to;
- not act in a threatening way towards you;
- provide information to you in a clear way;
- give you clear information about fees that are added to your account;
- provide you with a breakdown of fees that have been added to your account when you make a written request;
- avoid telling anyone else why they are visiting you;
- respect your religion and culture;
- take care that proper procedures are followed when they try to take your goods;
- handle your goods with care to avoid unnecessary damage; and
- recognise when you may be vulnerable.
If you are vulnerable, you can ask the bailiff to return the debt to the creditor or to accept monthly payments from you without taking further action. The bailiff should follow the procedures they have agreed with the creditor to help make sure you are dealt with fairly. They should report any concerns they have back to the creditor. If a bailiff does not agree to do this, you may be able to persuade them if you can show that you fall within one or more of the groups that the guidelines say may be vulnerable. You may find our Tell a bailiff that you are vulnerable sample letter helpful.
Am I vulnerable?
The guidelines describe when you may be viewed as vulnerable. This includes when you:
- are old or seriously ill;
- have a disability;
- are a single parent family;
- are pregnant; or
- have difficulty speaking, reading or understanding English.
This is not a full list of all the situations when you might be considered vulnerable. Even if you fall into one of these categories, it does not mean that you will always be classed as vulnerable.
Complaining to the bailiff
It is usually a good idea to complain to the bailiff first.
- Write to the bailiff explaining your complaint.
- Set out the facts as clearly as you can.
- Say what you are not happy with, and what you want them to do about it.
- Include any evidence that you feel supports your complaint.
- You may find our Complain to a bailiff company sample letter helpful.
Ask the bailiff for a copy of their complaints procedure. This will tell you how they should deal with your complaint, and in what timescale. Remember to send a copy of your complaint to the creditor.
Complaining to the creditor
If you are unhappy with the bailiff’s response to your complaint, you can complain to the creditor. Ask for their complaints procedure so that you can see how they should deal with your complaint. They may also have a policy about how the bailiffs should treat you and when bailiffs should return your case to them. Send the creditor a copy of your original complaint and the bailiff's response.
Explain why you are unhappy with the bailiff’s response. The creditor is generally responsible for the actions of their bailiffs. Don’t be put off if the creditor says that they cannot handle your complaint. Send them a copy of your complaint by recorded delivery and keep a copy for your own records.
Complaining to the magistrates’ court
If you are dealing with a bailiff who is collecting a magistrates’ court fine, you can raise the matter with the magistrates’ court that instructed the bailiff. Explain why you are unhappy with how the bailiff has dealt with your case and what you want the court to do to resolve the matter. Ask the court for a copy of their complaints procedure. If you have followed the court’s complaints procedure in full and are unhappy with the response, you can ask your MP to refer your complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.
We produce other fact sheets that contain information about particular types of bailiffs. See the later section Other fact sheets that may help you.
Complaining to the ombudsman
For some debts, you may be able to make a complaint to an ombudsman about how the bailiffs have behaved. You will not be charged a fee for doing this. You usually have to complain to the creditor that employs the bailiff first. For example, you may be able to complain to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) about bailiffs employed by a council in England, but you must complain to the council first.
The LGSCO may not consider complaints if there is a specific court process to deal with the issue, for example disputes about ownership of goods or bailiffs' fees. If the ombudsman agrees with your complaint, it can ask the creditor to:
- apologise to you;
- pay you compensation; and
- improve their procedures.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (for England) and Public Services Ombudsman for Wales have useful information on their websites about how to make a complaint and what types of complaint they can deal with. See the later section Useful contacts.
Civil Enforcement Association
Most private bailiff firms are members of the Civil Enforcement Association (CIVEA), which is a trade body. Trade bodies are formed to represent the interests of their members. If a bailiff is a CIVEA member shown on www.civea.co.uk, you can use the CIVEA complaints process.
CIVEA will not deal with complaints that relate to the following debts.
- Local authority debts, such as council tax, business rates and penalty charge notices (PCN).
- Transport for London (TfL) debts, such as the congestion charge.
Bailiffs have to have a certificate granted by the County Court. A complaint from you can help get the certificate withdrawn. The court will hold a hearing and can cancel the bailiff’s certificate. Alternatively they can suspend the bailiff’s certificate and order them to retrain. You do not have to pay a fee to make this application. You need to fill in a Complaint against a certificated person form and send it to the County Court hearing centre that granted the bailiff their certificate. Contact us for advice.
Certificated bailiff register
You can find out if a bailiff has a current certificate by searching the Court Service on-line Certificated Bailiff Register on this website:
Alternatively, call the County Court Bulk Centre on 0300 123 1057.
Get advice before complaining
Think carefully before you make this type of complaint against a certificated bailiff. If your complaint is not successful, the court will not usually order you to pay extra costs. However, you can be asked to pay costs in some limited situations. Talk to a local money advice centre, law centre, citizens advice bureau or contact us for advice.
This fact sheet covers the main types of complaint that you can make about bailiffs. There may be other things you can do if a bailiff has broken the law.
For example, there are different types of court action you can take.
- If the bailiffs have taken goods that they shouldn’t, you could issue a court claim for return of goods.
- If the bailiffs have not followed the proper procedures when taking control of your goods, you could issue a court claim for any loss you have suffered.
Get advice before taking any type of court action. Talk to a local money advice centre, law centre, citizens advice bureau or contact us for advice.
Civil Enforcement Association Phone: 0844 893 3922 www.civea.co.uk
Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (England) Phone: 0300 061 0614 www.lgo.org.uk
Public Services Ombudsman for Wales Phone: 0300 790 0203 www.ombudsman.wales
Taking Control - The campaign for bailiff reform www.bailiffreform.org