If you’ve been struggling with debt for some time, you may have had a notice through your door telling you that bailiffs are coming to your home. This normally happens once a debt has escalated quite far and, understandably, can be scary and cause a lot of stress.
Bailiffs have varying rights when it comes to collecting a debt. They can legally enforce debts, remove items from your property and repossess certain belongings. However, they have to act within the limits of the law.
We’ve created this handy guide to help you know what rights bailiffs have, what they can and cannot do and what you can do to avoid them knocking at your door.
What is a bailiff?
A bailiff is someone who has the legal power to collect money that you owe on behalf of a company.
They can do this by asking you to pay what you owe, or by taking some of your belongings to sell in order to pay off your debts. They can be sent by the court, or by a private organisation, but are normally only sent once a company has tried all other recovery options.
Bailiffs can collect a range of debts, including:
- Council tax
- High court and county court judgements
- Parking penalties
- Child support
- Income tax
- National Insurance
- Business rent
- Magistrate court fines
Bailiffs are responsible for collecting unpaid debts in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. If you live in Scotland, sheriff officers carry out this role.
It’s also important to note that bailiffs are different from debt collectors. Debt collectors do not have the same rights as bailiffs; they can visit you at home, request payment, and arrange a repayment schedule with you, but they cannot seize possessions, or enter your home by force under any circumstances.
If a debt collector claims to be a bailiff, they are committing a criminal offence.
Understanding what a bailiff can and cannot legally do will help you to stay safe when dealing with them.
What rights do bailiffs have?
Although bailiffs have more power than debt collectors, they’re still government by strict rules.
A bailiff is not allowed to visit your home until a notice of enforcement is served. This means that if a bailiff is going to visit you, you must be given at least seven days’ notice in writing. This should either be by post or hand-delivered to you.
Thanks to changes made in 2007, bailiffs’ powers have been brought under tighter control. This means they can no longer enter homes when only children under the age of 16 are present, they can’t enter by any means other than a door, seize essential items, or visit you in the middle of the night.
In addition, bailiffs are now banned from using physical force against the people they visit. They are also required to go through compulsory training before they begin to work.
When bailiffs visit, they must:
- Show you ID
- State the reason for their visit and who they represent
- Ask your permission to come in
When bailiffs visit, they must not:
- Enter your home without your permission
- Force entry – unless they’re collecting a criminal fine, tax, or to remove goods following the breach of a controlled good agreement
- Enter your home if the only person at home is aged 16 or under
- Force entry on their first visit or without the correct warrant (usually a magistrates’ court warrant)
- Enter your home if the only person at home is disabled
- Visit your property between the hours of 9pm and 6am, or on public holidays
- Enter through any means other than the door
Bailiffs are at my door for someone else
In some cases, bailiffs might visit your home looking for someone else. This could happen for two main reasons: either the bailiff is looking for a friend or family member who shares your address, or they’re looking for someone at the wrong address.
If the bailiff is seeking someone not known at your address
It’s best not to let them in. Instead, ask to speak to them at a safe distance from your door. Showing them a document like a council tax or utility bill to prove your identity will usually make them leave.
Alternatively, phone the company or court who sent them and explain the mistake.
If the bailiff is looking for someone you live with
Living with someone does not make you responsible for their debt. In this situation, explain to the bailiff they the person they are looking for is not at home.
If this is their first visit, they cannot come into your home without your agreement under any circumstances. If they have a warrant to enter, they can come in to document or seize goods.
However, bailiffs cannot seize goods that don’t belong to the person in question. You may need to prove ownership to stop them from taking certain objects, which can be done with a bill, receipt, or order form.
Make the person who owes the debt aware of the visit as soon as possible, and advise them to get advice about their debt, or call the company who sent the bailiff to arrange a repayment plan.
If you and someone else have taken on a debt together, you are both responsible for its repayment, even if the other person usually deals with it. If the other person is behind with the payments and a bailiff has been employed to recover the debt, they could document or seize items belonging to both of you.
Can bailiffs enter your home?
Bailiffs can come into your home, but only under certain circumstances. If they try to enter under the wrong circumstances, they are breaking the law.
On their first visit, bailiffs can only enter if you tell them they can or through a door that has been left open.
Can bailiffs force entry?
Bailiffs can only force their way in under certain circumstances. They are never allowed to break down a door but, depending on the kind of debt that you owe, can come back with a locksmith.
Bailiffs can enter by force under the following circumstances:
- If they have a magistrate’s court warrant.
- To seize goods, if the goods have been moved to a different property.
- If they have gained peaceful entry to your home before.
Can bailiffs enter your house when you’re not there?
Generally, bailiffs are not allowed to come into your home if no-one is in. They can, however, try to gain peaceful entry if a family member is in at the time of their visit.
In some cases, if you are not present, the bailiff will look through your windows if possible, to make a list of any items they can see that can be seized. They will then leave you a notice to advise you that they have attempted to visit.
It’s important to also note that if bailiffs are collecting criminal fines, VAT debts or it isn’t their first visit, they may be able to force entry whether you are there or not.
What happens when bailiffs gain peaceful entry?
If bailiffs gain peaceful entry into your house, you have to be aware that their rights have now changed. Once they are inside, they are allowed to go into every room of your home and document items to take away.
If you do choose to allow a bailiff into your home, they’ll ask you to set out which items belong to you and which don’t. If you claim certain items don’t belong to you, bailiffs may ask you to prove this is the case.
If they suspect the items do belong to you and you can’t prove otherwise, the bailiffs may seize these items.
While bailiffs can’t take items away if they’re inside your home for the first time, if they’ve been in once, they will now be allowed to come back and, if need be, force their way in to take items in order to sell them.
When bailiffs make a list of your valuable items, this is part of a controlled goods agreement. This is an agreement made between you and the company you owe money to that, should you fail to keep up with an agreed payment plan, they can send a bailiff to seize the goods listed.
What can bailiffs take?
If you allow bailiffs to enter your home, they are able to start taking your belongings instead of creating a controlled goods agreement.
Bailiffs can take luxury items such as:
- Gaming consoles
Bailiffs cannot take items you need for everyday life such as:
- White goods like fridges, freezers or washing machines
- Work or study tools and equipment with a combined value of less than £1,350
- Pets or service animals
- Fixtures and fittings
- Children’s toys
Can a bailiff take my car?
There are different rules when it comes to cars and they can only be taken by bailiffs under certain circumstances. It should be noted that even if you don’t let them in, they will still be able to clamp or seize your car if it is parked at your home, business, or on a public road.
If you think your car might be at risk of being repossessed by bailiffs, you can move it elsewhere, or keep it in a locked garage to prevent them taking it when you are not home.
Bailiffs cannot seize or clamp your car if:
- You hold a blue disability badge
- The car is on finance
- It is essential for your job, and worth no more than £1,350
- The vehicle is your main home (a camper van or houseboat, for instance)
Under any other circumstances, bailiffs can take your car and sell it to pay off your debts.
Can bailiffs take pets?
No. Bailiffs can’t take any pets from your home and animals are not considered something that can be seized. As such, if a bailiff tells you they will take you pet or has attempted to do so, they are breaking the law.
This is especially true in cases where your pet is a service or guide dog as they are deemed necessary for your everyday living.
When bailiffs are involved, they will add fees to your debt. These include:
Compliance fee – £75
When bailiffs write to you to tell you they are coming, £75 will be added to your debts.
Enforcement fee – £235 plus 7.5% of your debts over £1,500
This is the fee you would pay for a bailiff’s first visit. The overall cost will vary depending on your level of debt. For example, if you owed a company £3,000, you would pay the £235 flat fee, plus £112.50, (7.5% of the balance above £1,500), which comes to a total of £347.50.
Sale fee – £112 plus 7.5% of your debts over £1,500
If your goods are sold by a bailiff, this is what you will pay. If you owed £3,000, this fee would be £224.50.
How to avoid bailiffs
Bailiffs must give you seven days’ notice, in writing, of a planned visit. This allows you a few days to contact the company you’re in debt to or get advice about how to sort out your debt, which could prevent the visit from happening.
If a bailiff is at your door for the first time, you can refuse them entry and ask them to leave. Alternatively, you can attempt to arrange a payment plan with them directly, but it is advisable that you do this over the phone or through the letterbox.
If a bailiff ever behaves violently towards you, you should call the police on 999.
If you’ve received a notice of enforcement, call Creditfix immediately to discuss your options. We’re here to help and offer free, confidential advice. Our advisers are trained to offer you the best possible options for your situation.