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A law unto themselves: How bailiffs are breaking the rules

13 November 2018

A law unto themselves: How bailiffs are breaking the rules [ 0.59 mb]

Executive summary

In the last year, Citizens Advice has helped 41,000 people with 90,000 bailiff issues, while the bailiff pages on our website were visited more than 140,000 times. Problems with bailiffs are one of the most common debt issues we help people with.

These problems are frequently the result of bailiffs failing to comply with rules introduced in 2014. New polling backs up these conclusions. We have found that 2.2 million people report being contacted by bailiffs in the last two years and more than a third of these - 850,000 people - have experienced bailiffs breaking the rules.

While, the changes to bailiff regulations and national standards in 2014 were largely positive. The reforms have failed to transform standards amongst bailiffs because there isn’t an organisation to enforce the rules. Poor practice is continuing in five key ways:

  1. Bailiffs are refusing to accept affordable payment offers or are pressing people to make unrealistic offers. Almost 1 in 4 people (24%) contacted by bailiffs had an affordable payment offer rejected.

  2. Bailiffs are misrepresenting their rights of entry, for example by threatening to break in. 1 in 6 people (17%)contacted by bailiffs experienced a threat to break in, despite pursuing debts which did not give them the power to do this.

  3. Bailiffs are taking control of goods inappropriately, including exempt items and goods which don’t belong to the person who owes the debt. 1 in 10 people contacted by bailiffs had goods required for their work taken control of.

  4. Bailiffs are acting aggressively towards people in debt, thereby failing to conduct their duties in ‘a professional, calm and dignified manner’. Almost 2 in 5 people (37%) contacted by bailiffs experienced intimidation of some kind.

  5. Bailiffs are acting unsympathetically towards vulnerable people. The 2014 reforms set out new ways in which vulnerable people should be treated by bailiffs. Our polling found that 1 in 5 people (18%) contacted by bailiffs had seen them act unsympathetically towards people with illnesses and disabilities.

This widespread poor behaviour by bailiffs can have serious consequences. 84% of people who had a negative experience with bailiffs felt this had a lasting effect, with 7 in 10 people (70%) reporting increased stress and anxiety. 50% of people also experienced a knock-on effect on their finances. This is particularly concerning given the huge scale of bailiff use, which has affected at least 2.2 million people over the last two years.

Our evidence shows that reforms to the industry in 2014 haven’t worked. Not only do bailiffs visit people highly likely to be vulnerable, they also visit them at difficult times in their lives. Yet, unlike other sectors, such as water, energy, and financial services, there’s no independent regulator to hold bailiffs to account.

The Ministry of Justice must take the opportunity to address this gap by establishing an independent bailiff regulator through its upcoming consultation on the enforcement industry. This will ensure that - when rules are broken - both firms and individual bailiffs are held to account.