When the bailiff comes knocking – what are your rights?

If your debts get to the stage where a bailiff comes knocking at your
door to seize goods, it can be a very distressing experience. However,
if you know your rights and the law beforehand, this can alleviate some
of the stress and make the situation much more manageable.

This guide to the regulations on bailiffs refers to England and Wales
only.

What is a bailiff?

First of all, back to basics – what is a bailiff? A bailiff is someone
who collects a debt on behalf of someone to whom you owe money (a
creditor).

There are different types of bailiffs – county court, certified and
private. County court bailiffs are employed by the local authority,
certified bailiffs are employed by a private debt collection company
but have provided references to the local authority to confirm their
suitability to work as bailiffs.

All types of bailiff must adhere to the same general regulations,
although some have more power than others to collect debts.

When is a bailiff authorised to enter your house?

A bailiff might be employed to collect debts such as magistrates court
fines, county court judgements, unpaid council tax, outstanding child
support or maintenance, or overdue rent.

Legal authority must be granted by the court to permit a bailiff to
enter your house. There are different terms for the authority depending
on the type of debt. For county court judgements, a warrant of
execution is required. Other types are a liability order or a distress
warrant for unpaid fines, council tax or maintenance from the
magistrates court.

Sometimes creditors (or the debt collection agencies working on their
behalf) may send representatives as ‘counsellors’, ‘advisors’ or
‘collectors’ to negotiate the repayment of the debt with
you. These people are not bailiffs and they have no right to enter
your home or seize any goods.

Ask the bailiff for identification and for their warrant to enter your
house – they must provide these if you request to see them.

You will be given at least seven or 14 days’ notice of the bailiff’s
visit, depending on the type of warrant granted. However, you could
receive a visit at any time of day – there are no regulations as to
when bailiffs must call (except for those collecting rent, who must
call between dawn and dusk).

A bailiff can’t enter your house if the only person present is under
18m, and they can’t enter at all if there’s a child under 12 in the
house, even if there’s an adult present.

Do you have to let them in?

Under most circumstances, bailiffs are not allowed gain entry to your
house by force. Either you must invite them into your home, or they can
come in through an unlocked door or open window. They’re allowed to
climb over walls, gates and fences to get to your property, but they’re
not allowed to knock them down. And they can’t force their way past you
if you answer the door.

As a result of these restrictions, bailiffs often employ other methods
to enter your house peacefully. They may ask you to take pity on them
and let them inside if it’s raining, or they may request to use your
phone to speak to the creditor or debt collection agency. They may also
bring along police officers if they believe there may be a disturbance,
which can be very intimidating. However, you don’t have to agree to any
of these – even if the police are present.

What will the bailiffs do if you let them in?

If a bailiff gains entry to your house by peaceful means, they can then
take goods belonging to the person named on the warrant to cover the
cost of the debt if the person can’t pay by other means. It can be
difficult to prove who owns the goods, but the onus is on you. Normally
the bailiff will be able to take the goods and it is up to you
afterwards to provide evidence of ownership if they do not belong to
you.

When inside, bailiffs are allowed to break down locked doors or
cupboards, and after you’ve allowed them into your house once, they
have the right to enter again with or without your permission – and
they can even break a door or window to do so.

You have no right to forcibly remove a bailiff from your property after
they have entered and you could be charged with assault if you do.

What goods can a bailiff take?

There are some restrictions as to what items a bailiff is allowed to
remove from your property. Only non-essential items can be seized to
cover the debt, i.e. they must not take items that you need for basic
living, such as a cooker, a fridge, a bed, clothing or equipment or
vehicles that you need to carry out your job. However, they’re entitled
to take items such as a microwave oven, a hi-fi, a DVD player or a
second television set, as these are considered luxuries rather than
essentials.

To express their intention as to what goods they will take, the bailiff
will either put a note on them, touch them, point at them or tell you.
This is known as levying distress upon goods.

They’re most likely to take the items away immediately, although they
could leave someone to guard them until they are able to collect them.

Can you hide goods in advance of a bailiff visit?

Unless your debt is rent arrears, it’s not illegal to hide goods or
take them away from your house before the bailiff comes. However, if
the bailiff obtains peaceful entry to your house and suspects you have
hidden goods, they may return unexpectedly to look for the items they
believe you have hidden.

Is there a charge for a bailiff visit?

You will be charged a fee every time a bailiff has to come to your
house. The bailiffs will also charge for removing, storing and selling
your goods, which is likely to be done at auction. And your items won’t
be likely to fetch a good price at auction. They normally only sell for
around 10% of their original value. So even if your debt is only
£100, the bailiffs will be entitled to seize goods up to the value of
£1,000 to cover the debt.

Are there any alternatives to losing your goods?

One solution that will allow you to keep the goods in your house is a
walking possession order, in which the bailiff owns the seized goods
but allows you to keep and use them as long as you stick to your part
of an agreed repayment plan.

In order to seize goods for a walking possession order, the bailiff
must gain peaceful entry into your house. One trick that some bailiffs
may have up their sleeve is to make a list of goods that they have seen
through a window and then post the order through the letterbox. You
should not sign any order that has been taken out in this way.

Walking possession orders are subject to a fee – you will be charged
daily for as long as it is in place.

Another potential solution is to attempt to negotiate – although this
will probably only be effective at earlier stages of the debt recovery
process, before the bailiff’s visit. You’re more likely to be able to
come to a manageable agreement with your creditor if you keep
communicating with them so that they understand your situation, rather
than ignoring the repayment demands they send. As soon as you get
notice of a bailiff visit, start negotiations with the creditor or debt
collection agency immediately to try to agree on repayments and
persuade them to cancel the bailiff’s warrant.

For advice on how to deal with your debt and bailiff visits, contact
your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau.