Bailiffs have been part of debt law in England and Wales for over a thousand years. In fact the oldest law that’s still on the books in England, the 1267 Statute of Marlborough, concerns stopping bailiffs taking too much property.
Of course a lot has changed over the centuries and bailiff law has grown into a complicated subject. Now for the first time, the government have revised all of this legislation, and starting from April 6th bailiff law in England and Wales enters the 21st Century.
(Nothing’s changing if you live in Scotland or Northern Ireland though. The laws there are nowhere near as convoluted as bailiff law in England and Wales!)
If you’re worried, we can provide expert bailiff advice. Here are a few of the questions we get asked about this much-maligned profession, and what the changes in April will mean to you.
Want to get the latest on any changes to debt laws and how they could affect you? Sign up to the MoneyAware email newsletter.
Help, I’m confused! What’s going on with bailiffs?
Lots of people are left confused by bailiffs. It can be hard to understand what their letters mean and sometimes it’s not clear why – or even if – bailiffs have visited.
First, the changes in April mean that lots of that medieval language is being replaced with modern English.
So there’s no more worrying what a ‘warrant of execution’ might involve* – that’s being ditched. Even bailiffs themselves have been renamed, and are now called enforcement agents.
There’ll be no more surprise visits because you’ll now get at least a week’s notice before the first visit from an enforcement agent. And to make the process easier to understand, when they come they’ll have to leave a letter explaining clearly what they’ve done.
This means there’ll be less mystery around the enforcement process, which can only be a good thing.
*You won’t be executed. It’s the instructions from a court to an enforcement agent, now renamed a ‘warrant of control’.
Can bailiffs, sorry, enforcement agents, break in?
Not much has changed here and enforcement agents still can’t force their way into your house. It’s still illegal for them to break anything, put their foot in the door or push past you to get in.
They can still use force to enter when they’re collecting criminal fines or tax debts from HM Revenue & Customs, but they’ll need to ask a judge for permission first. And as before, if an enforcement agent has been into your house and made a list of goods, they can use force to enter again if you don’t pay them.
We’re happy to see that enforcement agents won’t be allowed to climb in through your window now. And the law now stops them coming in if only children or vulnerable adults are in the house.
What can bailiffs take?
Enforcement agents can take any goods you own, including those you own jointly with someone else. But they must leave essential household goods, and there’s now a more realistic list of items exempted from the list, such as your fridge, phone, microwave and washing machine.
Items needed to care for children, disabled and older people can no longer be taken, and there’s new protection for items used for studying.
Cars have always been a target for enforcement agents, and that won’t change. The new regulations allow them to clamp cars on any public road and tow them away after two hours. There’s some good news about cars though, as vehicles needed by a disabled person to get around can’t be taken now.
Will the bailiffs take all my goods straight away?
No, you’ll normally get a chance to pay the debt first. Enforcement agents will make a list of your goods if they come into your home. They have the power to take them straight away, but they’re very unlikely to do this. Instead they’ll make an agreement to leave the goods with you as long as you make payments to the debt. This used to be known as ‘walking possession’, but it’s now called a ‘controlled goods agreement’.
Enforcement agents have a new option of locking your goods in a cupboard or room in your house to stop you removing them before the debt is paid. We don’t think this’ll be used often for goods inside the house, but they can use these new rules to clamp your car on the drive or in your garage.
How much can bailiffs charge?
Fees are probably the biggest worry for anyone when enforcement agents call. Until now there were different fees for each type of debt, with many of these relying on what an enforcement agent thought was ‘reasonable’.
Thankfully the new fees are much easier to understand. There’ll just be two lists of fees with the amounts fixed in law, so there’s no room for enforcement agents to overcharge. You can probably guess the bad news – the fees may be simpler, but in many cases they’ll be more expensive.
How can I complain about a bailiff?
No one enjoys dealing with enforcement agents, but most of the time they follow the rules and act fairly. Still, there are times when rules get broken. If you feel you’ve been treated unfairly by an enforcement agent you can make a complaint.
The new regulations include a process to take serious complaints to court where a judge can order an enforcement agent to give back your goods or pay you compensation. We’re still waiting for the details of this new process to be published (to keep up with the latest we’d recommend signing up to the MoneyAware newsletter).
In the meantime, the best starting point for complaints is a letter to the enforcement agent’s employer and the creditor. If you don’t get an answer you’re happy with, you can take the complaint further with the enforcement agent’s trade body.
It’s a mixed bag. Many of the changes will make the enforcement process fairer and easier to understand, but some changes aren’t so good.
The new regulations have been sixteen years in the making, and the government had to weigh up opinions from all sides. So it’s not surprising that we haven’t got all the improvements we’d have liked and some opportunities have been missed. For example, we wanted to see an independent regulator to oversee enforcement agents, but plans for this were dropped.
One thing that definitely hasn’t changed is that a visit from an enforcement agent (or bailiff!) is a warning sign that you need to get free and impartial advice straight away.
To speak to us, please call 0800 138 1111 (Monday to Friday 8am to 8pm, Saturday 8am to 4pm, Freephone from landlines and all major mobile networks, including Orange/EE, O2, Vodafone, T-Mobile, Three, Tesco Mobile and Virgin Mobile. Call charges from other networks may vary).