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Can bailiffs force entry for council tax debt?

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The idea of bailiffs coming to your home is enough to strike fear into most people – but few people fully understand exactly what bailiffs can and can’t do.

In this guide – we’ll give you the full picture – meaning that if the worst happens and bailiffs do come to your home, you’ll know exactly what they can and can’t do – and what’s expected of you.

What is a bailiff?

A bailiff is someone who acts upon debt on behalf of creditors (people you owe money to) or the courts.

Ordinarily, a bailiff will not visit your home to collect or enforce an outstanding debt until after court action has been taken. It is normally the failure of court action to recover the debt that prompts bailiffs to take further steps.

There are four different types of bailiff – and the type you deal with will depend on the type of debt that is being chased. They are:

  • County Court bailiffs: This is the most common type of bailiff. Where a creditor has applied for court action to recover a debt a County Court Judgement (CCJ) is issued. If this CCJ is not followed, i.e. if you do not keep up payments that have been decided upon, then a bailiff will attempt to collect this debt in full.
  • Sheriff / High Court Enforcements Officers: The ‘High Court’ is another type of civil court – although usually handles larger value claims than the County Court. A High Court bailiff is therefore usually instructed when a larger debt is involved – normally over £5000.
  • Magistrates Court bailiff: This type of bailiff works directly for the Magistrates Court and normally deals with debts that relate to unpaid fines relating to criminal convictions.
  • Private bailiffs: Where other bailiffs are paid by the court or are civil servants, private bailiffs are often part of an agency or self-employed. They are often contracted by councils and government departments to collect tax related debt – including HMRC claims and council tax – as well as parking fines.
  • Although in the heat of the moment it can be difficult to work out exactly who’s trying to recover a debt, it’s important that you seek clarification as to who you’re dealing with - and recognise that a debt collector is not a bailiff…

What’s the different between a bailiff and a debt collector?

Debt collectors and bailiffs are very different – even though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

A debt collector can knock on your door and ask you to make a payment toward your debt. In reality, their powers don’t really extend much beyond this – they cannot enter your home, record information about your goods, seize your goods, force you to pay or threaten or pressure you in an effort to get payment.

It’s sometimes helpful to imagine that a debt collector is an ‘in-person’ version of the letters or phone calls you get asking you to pay what you’re behind on.

A debt collector should never claim to be a bailiff if they’re not – this is a criminal offence.

If it turns out you’re dealing with a debt collector you’re under no obligation to pay that person – many people choose to call the company they represent and pay them directly instead.

What do bailiffs do?

While most people think of bailiffs as being the people who’ll come and take your possessions away in lieu of money owed, their powers actually extend further than this and may come to your home for a variety of reasons.

Most commonly, bailiffs are instructed to:

  • Evict a tenant or unlawful occupant from a property
  • Repossess a home in line with an unpaid debt secured against it
  • Collect goods that are subject to an unpaid hire purchase or finance agreement
  • Collect money or goods to compensate for an unpaid debt or fine
  • Enforce some type of arrest warrant

While bailiffs in the media are portrayed in a certain way – there’s actually a lot of paperwork and notifications that goes hand in hand with a bailiff visiting your property. In fact, no bailiff should ever come to your home without having given 7 days-notice of their intention to visit.

Government guidelines say that a bailiff can visit your home during ‘reasonable hours’ – normally considered to be between 6am and 9pm.

When they come to your home they will enact whatever is expected of them by the creditor. Most often this will be seeking repayment or debt – although it could be to evict, repossess or reclaim property. You will always have been notified of their intention prior to their visit.

Can bailiffs force entry?

You can be forgiven for thinking of a bailiff as a big, intimidating character who’s going to force their way into your home. The reality of the situation is almost always different – especially as bailiffs often rely on their people skills to get to an understanding.

Although the rules are slightly different if it’s a business debt that’s being collected – or a bailiffs second visit to your home for the same debt – the vast majority of the time a bailiff cannot:

  • Force entry to your home
  • Enter your home without the correct warrant
  • Enter your home if the only person there is 16 years old or younger
  • Enter your home if the only person there is disabled
  • When they’re in your house they can enter each room (forcing access if there’s an obstruction) and inspect and document all the property that’s within. This includes otherwise private paperwork and can extend to any room of the house.

    It’s not uncommon for a bailiff to walk straight into your home without knocking or asking permission. You might consider this ‘forcing’ entry – however the courts and the police do not. This type of entry is considered ‘peaceable’.

    If you’ve received notification that bailiffs are going to visit your home and you have not been able to come to any agreement that could stop this action, you should consider keeping your home secured so bailiffs enter on your terms, rather than their own. Doing so can keep the stress, anxiety and confrontation down during a bailiff visit.

    Checking a bailiff is who they say they are

    As with anyone who is entering your home you should check that a bailiff is who they claim to be before letting them enter.

    They will carry identification and almost always carry the warrant that they are serving. If you are under any doubt whatsoever, they will respect your wishes if you want to check their identity with whichever creditor they are acting on behalf of.

    How can you stop a bailiff coming into your house?

    While television programmes might make it look difficult or impossible to stop bailiffs entering your home, it’s actually not – and you’re legally allowed to do so in the majority of cases.

    The exceptions to this rule usually come if bailiffs are collecting criminal fines – or acting on behalf of HMRC to collect unpaid tax. When acting in this capacity they can force entry and even force their way past any person who might stand in their way.

    If you do not want bailiffs in your home you can:

    • Talk to them through an upstairs window or the letter box
    • Keep a chain or security gate on your door
    • Ensure doors and windows are locked
    • Make sure all occupants of the house understand that you’re not letting them in

    Although keeping bailiffs out might seem like a good idea – it’s not going to make the debt or problem go away – and they will almost certainly return at a later date. They may even apply for different types of warrants that mean they can force entry.

    If possible, it’s better to come to an agreement with a bailiff upon their first visit – not least because subsequent visits will add further costs to the debt.

    What happens if you ignore a bailiff’s visit?

    Just as your situation can change if you let a bailiff into your home – the situation can also change for the worse if you ignore a bailiff’s visit.

    It might be tempting to pretend you’re not home – but this will often prompt them to go away and escalate the warrant even further – applying for a ‘notice of entry’. This type of notice would allow them to force entry – often by bringing a locksmith (and/or the police) who will help them enter your home.

    It might feel like the last thing you want to do – but it’s always better to try to come to an agreement with a bailiff upon their first visit.

    Can bailiffs take things out of your home?

    A bailiff can take things from your home – but it’s not as simple as them walking in then walking back out with your possessions.

    Firstly, a bailiff will always try to recover the debt by collecting money. Documenting, removing and selling your property at auction is a lot of work and few creditors want to recover the money they’re owed in this way.

    If you are unable to come to an agreement with the bailiff and the creditor they represent then they may be faced with no option but to recover goods that will cover some or all of the debt. If this is the case they will opt to take things like:

    • TVs, computers and tablets
    • Games consoles
    • Jewellery
    • Art or collectables
    • Cash
    • Cars and motorbikes
    • Bicycles
    • Tools and garden equipment

    While there are many items that bailiffs can take – there are a few that they can’t, these include:

    • White kitchen goods – such as fridge, freezer and washing machine
    • Telephones
    • Bedding
    • Items that are needed for the case of children or disabled people
    • Computers that are being used for study or work

    A bailiff cannot take items that do not belong to you – or have outstanding finance or hire purchase agreements attached to them. However, you may need to prove that items are not yours – receipts and invoices often help in this regard.

    You may find that the value you put against the goods you own far outweighs the value the bailiffs place against them. This is because goods often raise far less than their actual value when sold at auction – which is where most seized goods will be sold. It is not uncommon for auctioned goods to sell for about 1/5th of their anticipated value.

    Coming to an agreement with a bailiff

    While some people can pay the entire debt that is owed – and stop the bailiff enforcing the warrant or writ that they have been instructed to, it’s also not uncommon for a bailiff to be in a position to negotiate terms that satisfy both parties.

    Some creditors will accept nothing but the full payment – whereas others may be happy with a payment plan being set up. As a word of warning though, a failure to stick to any payment plan could result in further bailiff visits and additional costs.

    If you are able to pay a bailiff, either in part or in full, you should ensure that you’re given a receipt for any money paid.

    You may decide that the bailiff should to take goods instead – if this is the case, detailed paperwork will be drawn up documenting everything that is seized.

    Controlled Goods Agreement

    If a part-payment is agreed upon, most bailiffs will draw up a ‘controlled goods agreement’ – a legal document that details the seizure of goods in your home that will take place if you do not adhere to the agreement payment schedule.

    Being treated fairly

    Dealing with bailiffs can be difficult – and it’s easy to consider the whole process to be unfair or unjust. As bailiffs work to enforce court proceedings and under the supervision of the court, they do have a code of conduct and are expected to work within legal guidelines.

    If you feel like you have been treated unfairly, if the bailiff has seized goods they didn’t have the right to, entered your home without the right warrant, with force when the circumstances didn’t allow or failed to produce the correct documents – you can complain. The gov.uk website has some detailed guidance on how to do so.