Probably the scariest thing about problem debts is the prospect that bailiffs might turn up at your house, and take everything you own. By the time bailiffs (officially known as enforcement officers) are involved, you’re likely to have already been dealing with financial issues for some time as they’re generally only involved after a court action.
Bailiffs in England and Wales (Sheriff Officers in Scotland) do have legal powers to recover debts. But they should also be following strict rules and procedures, which can give you the chance to resolve things without additional stress and financial costs. But to do that, you need to know what’s happening and why, what both you and the bailiffs are legally allowed to do, and what options you have.
It’s important to communicate effectively with your creditors even at this stage to potentially prevent them from sending bailiffs to your home, or to ensure you’re classified as a vulnerable person and be treated with greater care and consideration. The DebtBuffer letter templates will help you send the right information to the relevant companies and help you get more time to put an effective debt solution in place. Whether that’s a DMP or IVA, or opting for a Debt Relief Order or Bankruptcy.
Given that bailiffs usually only get involved after court action, your credit rating will already be badly affected and not worth worrying about in the short term. At this stage the priority should be to remove the stress and worry from your life as quickly as possible, without making the situation worse.
Normally known officially as Enforcement Agents, a bailiff may work for a private company, be self-employed, or work on behalf of courts. They have specific legal powers to remove and sell your goods to pay a debt, but will usually only be involved after a court action except on behalf of HM Revenue and Customs.
The four types of Bailiff are:
Bailiffs or Enforcement Agents operate across the UK, except in Scotland where Sheriff Officers operate on a similar basis.
Debt collectors are typically employed to recover debts related to consumer credit, such as loans, overdrafts, credit cards or utility arrears, although they can also work on behalf of your local council, the DVLA and HM Revenue and Customers.
A debt collector or debt collection agency has no special legal powers or rights to recover debts, enter your property or take anything you own. It’s unusual for them to visit your home, and we’ve compiled a detailed guide on debt collectors and how to deal with them.
Bailiffs will typically be sent to your property to enforce a judgement after a court action, and usually if you’ve not met the agreement set in court. Bailiffs have legal powers to collect a debt including the right to visit your property, and to remove and sell your goods to pay off the money you owe.
They may be able to force entry into your property, but this is only to recover specific types of debt, and relatively rare. In all other cases, they are only able to come in peacefully if you let them.
Bailiffs and enforcement agents should follow a set procedure for informing you before they visit, and how they act when they are at your property.
Your creditor or a debt collection agency will have to apply to a court for a ‘warrant of control’ which gives them the power to visit you and take goods which can then be sold at auction.
They will then send you a notice of enforcement letter to explain why and when they’ll visit you, and which gives you seven working days to either pay off the debt or agree repayments.
On the first visit a bailiff will usually not attempt to take any items. They will usually aim to make a list of the items which are suitable for them to take, called an inventory. At this point, a Controlled Goods Agreement may be arranged (explained in more detail below), or they may leave and then return to try to take your goods.
At each stage, you have the opportunity to organise a repayment plan and take steps to prevent further action by bailiffs. Even when your goods have been taken away, it’s possible to start making repayments and potentially get your items back.
No matter what stage of the bailiff process you’re at, it’s important to get expert debt advice, and communicate with creditors and bailiffs to find the best solution for you to sort your financial situation without any further disruption.
Bailiffs are allowed to visit you on any day of the week between 6am and 9pm. They are only able to arrive outside these times with a specific warrant, or if you’re at a business premises which is only open outside those hours.
It’s possible for them to contact you at work, but they shouldn’t share the reason for their phone call with anyone else. If you might have assets stored at your workplace, then they may include this in their warrant allowing them to turn up at work and seize items if necessary. This will depend a lot on your personal circumstances and type of debt, so it’s best to get expert advice.
In most cases, a bailiff is not allowed to force entry to your home or business property. They will need to explain who they are and why they’re calling, and to try to enter peacefully through the front or back door. Debts which don’t allow bailiffs to force entry include:
Bailiffs can force entry under certain circumstances. But this means ‘reasonable force’ by bringing a locksmith to unlock a door rather than breaking it down, unless it’s granted by their warrant in very rare problem cases. These debts include:
Even in these cases, entry by ‘reasonable force’ does not allow them to:
Bailiffs are also able to charge fees for collecting your debts. These will depend on the type of debt and bailiff involved.
The police may attend with a bailiff to try to avoid any disturbance. But they have to remain impartial except if they are specifically enforcing a High Court writ of control, or the court has agreed the police can help a bailiff force entry. You can’t be arrested for refusing entry if a bailiff hasn’t already entered to make a list of goods, but after the first visit you can be arrested if you hide, remove or deliberately damage anything listed, try to physically obstruct them or behave in a threatening or aggressive manner.
High Court Enforcement agents and Certificated Enforcement Agents are required to wear body cameras since July 2019. This doesn’t include County Court Bailiffs currently.
Bailiffs will charge a fixed fee and a percentage of debts over £1,500. And these costs will be higher if you’re dealing with High Court bailiffs.
For non-High Court Bailiffs, there is a three-stage process as follows:
|Fixed fee||Percentage extra for debts over £1,500|
|Compliance – sending the initial Notice of Enforcement letter about your debt||£75||0%|
|Enforcement – visiting your home for the first visit||£235||7.5%|
|Sale – when a bailiff returns to take and sell your belongings.||£110||7.5%|
If a bailiff is collecting more than one debt, they can charge the £75 compliance fee for each one. But they can’t charge multiple times for visiting or taking your belongings. But you can be charged separately if different bailiff companies are involved.
For High Court Bailiff fees, there is a four-stage process. And the percentage fee starts at debts over £1,000.
|Fixed Fee||Percentage extra for debts over £1,000|
|Enforcement 1 – visiting your home||£190||7.5%|
|Enforcement 2 – if you didn’t make or keep an agreement||£495||0%|
You may also be billed for ‘disbursement costs’ or some of the expenses of the bailiffs which could be:
These need to be realistic, and any other costs would have to be included due to a court order. The initial £75 fee to send the Notice of Enforcement can only be charged once, along with the £235 for their first visit. The rules are set out in “The Taking Control of Goods (Fees) Regulations 2014”.
11 (4) a: “the fixed fee for each stage may be recovered only once regardless of the number of enforcement powers to which the instructions relate;”
If a single bailiff is enforcing multiple debts, then they should “as far as practicable, minimise the disbursements recoverable from the debtor under these Regulations by dealing with the goods taken into control pursuant to the instructions together and on as few occasions as possible.”
Bailiff fees are added into your total debts, so they’re included if you then enter into a formal solution such as an IVA or a Trust deed.
If you believe the fees or bill are incorrect then you can complain by writing to your creditor to cancel fees or return money. It’s also possible to apply to court for a judge to decide if fees are incorrect, and if the amount outweighs the court cost.
There is no set limit to the number of visits a bailiff can make. They will normally try several times before returning the warrant to the court or the local authority if they can’t enter your property or take control of goods.
The fees charged by bailiffs are limited to their first visits as set out above, along with the rules regarding enforcement of multiple debts by an individual bailiff or company.
If you feel a bailiff or enforcement agent is harassing you, it can be escalated via a governing body or ombudsman depending on the type of debt being collected, and can also be followed up through the police and civil courts.
Just like creditors and debt collectors, bailiffs also have to treat you with greater care and allow you more time to respond to letters and demands if you’re classed as vulnerable. And they also shouldn’t enter any home if vulnerable people are the only ones there.
There are many situations which can lead to you being classed as vulnerable, including if:
It’s important to contact creditors and bailiffs about your vulnerable situation as soon as possible. This includes stating the reasons why, how dealing with them will be harder for you, letting them know how a letter could make your situation worse, and asking them to cancel future visits because it may cause you extra distress.
Many councils and companies will stop using bailiffs if you explain you’re vulnerable. And DebtBuffer can help you with letter templates to ensure you include the right information to maximise the chance of being classed as vulnerable.
If you think you fit the definition of being classed as vulnerable, notifying a creditor or bailiff of this should have the effect of a temporary pause in any action whilst they go through the relevant processes and steps required to handle the collection of your debts. This could be valuable breathing space for you to get your finances in order or seek professional help to put a stop to the stress and hassle of serious debt.
You should also explain to creditors and bailiffs if you’re a carer, relative or friend acting for someone vulnerable and in debt. Including if you have the legal right to act on their behalf.
If you just ignore bailiffs, the results will vary depending on your individual circumstances and debts. So, it’s extremely important to get expert debt advice on your situation before deciding what action to take.
For debts which don’t initially allow bailiffs to force entry, ignoring them will be likely to see them apply to be able to force entry. But each stage will mean the creditor and debt collectors deciding whether it’s still financially worthwhile to pursue the debts.
Be aware that ignoring debts and bailiffs will mean both the interest on the original amount, and the bailiff fees, could keep increasing.
Ignoring bailiffs attempting to recoup criminal debts such as court fines may lead to your arrest. You may receive letters threatening prison if you don’t pay council tax, but this is extremely rare (and has since been ended in Wales). In many cases, the council may decide to wipe your debts entirely instead if it’s decided that you’re unable to pay.
Ultimately, if a bailiff is unable to recover goods, it’s more likely that councils and creditors will attempt other routes to recover debts, such as deductions from earnings or benefits, rather than arrest or imprisonment. So, it’s mainly criminal debts which may escalate to harsher punishment if you continually ignore bailiffs.
The first time a bailiff enters your home, it won’t usually be to actually take any of your things. They’ll normally make a list first, called an ‘inventory’, of the items that they could repossess, which they will then sell with the money going towards paying off your debt. Adding the items is termed ‘taking control’ of your belongings.
At this stage, you can speak to them about either paying off your debt in full, or preventing them from removing your belongings by making repayments under a ‘controlled goods agreement’ discussed in more detail below.
A bailiff can only take goods that they have access to and can remove. So, typically that means they can’t take items into control by seeing them through your window or letterbox, as they have to actually be able to physically touch them.
Bailiffs can take items you own, or that you own jointly with someone else. They’ll focus on luxury items and things which can be sold easily for a good price. So, their targets will include motor vehicles, electrical goods, jewellery and furniture.
But essentially, they’re restricted by rules on what they can’t take, rather than a list of what they are able to repossess.
Bailiffs can’t take everything you own. They have to leave things which you need to live, work (up to maximum value), and some other goods. Basic household items are example from being repossessed by bailiffs which include:
Other protected items which can’t be taken by a bailiff include:
If you are visited by a bailiff, it’s possible to make a ‘controlled goods agreement’ to stop them from removing items they’ve taken control of by listing on their inventory. This means agreeing a repayment plan to pay off your debt.
The first step is to carefully look through the inventory and make sure it’s detailed with the model, make and colour of everything listed. Check they haven’t included items that they’re not allowed to take, and make sure these are crossed off. If they’ve added anything which isn’t completely or jointly owned by you, write ‘not mine’ next to it.
The second part of the process is to agree to regular affordable repayments. These need to be affordable, so it’s worth going through your budget and getting advice before bailiffs arrive. Especially as it’s helpful to get bank statements and bills organised so you can work out an accurate plan.
You can then offer the repayments to the bailiff, supported by a budget sheet proving how much you can afford. You have the option to pay in weekly or monthly instalments, and if the bailiff doesn’t agree to this you can complain.
And you shouldn’t feel rushed or pressured into agreeing to a payment plan which you can’t afford. Take your time, and you should be able to go into another room and call a friend or family member for help and support. If you believe you were forced into an agreement which isn’t realistic or affordable you should make a complaint.
The final step is to check if the controlled goods agreement is valid. Details it needs to include are:
The controlled goods agreement isn’t valid until you’ve signed it. Until then, the bailiff can still remove items and sell them. But they won’t tend to do this, as it’s more hassle for them than a repayment plan, so it’s worth negotiating for the most affordable payments that you can manage.
And make sure you get a signed copy of the controlled goods agreement and the inventory.
Once a controlled goods agreement is in place, you need to stick to it. If you can’t make one or more payments, you should get in touch with debt support organisations and the bailiffs as soon as possible.
If you can’t negotiate a new solution and miss payments, you will have broken your controlled goods agreement. At that point they have to give you a ‘notice of intention to re-enter’ two days before returning to your home to remove any belongings listed.
This gives you some time to check if the notice is valid with your name and address listed correctly along with details on how you’ve broken the agreement. If the details are wrong, you can speak to the bailiffs immediately to ask them to delay visiting until you’ve been sent a valid notice.
And it also gives you a chance to speak to the bailiffs again to try and make a new offer to pay by explaining why the agreement was broken, and requesting more time.
If all of the steps fail, the bailiffs are allowed to use ‘reasonable force’ to enter your home. They won’t be allowed to break down your door, for example, but if you refuse entry, they can come with a locksmith who will unlock it. They can then remove items listed in the controlled goods agreement (and only those items), giving you a receipt for anything they take.
Try not to panic, and ensure you make a complaint if the bailiffs take anything they shouldn’t, or cause any damage. And even after items have been repossessed, you still have time to get things back before they’re sold.
Bailiffs are not allowed to take control of goods belonging to a child. Nothing should be taken from a children’s bedroom, including an Xbox, PlayStation or TV. Items such as toys and games should also be covered as items for a basic standard of living and caring for a child.
You may have a problem if the games console or TV is kept in the living room or another communal area rather than their bedroom. In this case you’ll need to try and prove ownership of those items. If you have the receipts and proof of purchase, you can provide these to the bailiff company and advise them that the item in question belongs to your child.
The restrictions on bailiffs mean they cannot take any items which are essential for a reasonable standard of living. This includes chairs to seat everyone in the house and other required furniture such as beds and stools.
If a bailiff is trying to list or remove something needed for your basic standard of living, then you should mention this to them before the item is taken. If the furniture has already been removed, then you have the right to ask for it back as an essential household item. And you can contact Citizens Advice for further guidance if the bailiff doesn’t comply.
The exception for furniture is if you have multiple chairs and sofas and it’s clear that many of them are not being used. So, a valuable sofa stored in a garage can be removed, as it can be claimed it’s surplus to your requirements.
A bailiff cannot take normal household pets including dogs, cats or other animals. And they are also not allowed to seize guide dogs or assistance animals. They are also not allowed to take items belonging to another person, for instance if the pet belongs to your partner or child.
Pet-related equipment is more debatable. Anything already used regularly is unlikely to be seized as bailiffs need to ensure you are left with everything to enable a basic standard of living, and used pet care items are also unlikely to have a good resale value.
However, as with furniture, if you have a large surplus of new and valuable pet equipment stored at your home, there’s a chance that this could be at risk of being seized.
Other animals could theoretically be included, such as horses or other livestock. It will largely depend on individual circumstances, so you should seek specialist advice. But generally, these cases will be rare due to the effort required by the bailiffs to transport, care and sell animals.
Motor vehicles are a popular target for bailiffs as they’re often accessible on a driveway or public road. This means your car will be easy to find and ‘take control of’. Cars and other vehicles are also typically easy to sell and will often be the highest value asset you own.
Many bailiff vehicles are also fitted with automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras which help them find a vehicle if you’ve parked it on a nearby street to try and evade them. And they can clamp or take your car when it’s been located.
Some vehicles are protected from being seized, and these are:
If you have a car with outstanding payments on a hire purchase or PCP finance plan, then arguably bailiffs have no right to take them, as they legally belong to a third party.
Unfortunately, current regulations are open to different interpretations which means bailiffs may argue they are within their rights to clamp or seize a car still on finance. If a bailiff or enforcement officer threatens to clamp or take a car on a finance plan, you should complain immediately to both the bailiff company and creditor that instructed the bailiff. You can also send the complaint to a regulator ombudsman that oversees the creditor such as the Financial Ombudsman or Local Government Ombudsman.
Only County Court bailiffs or High Court enforcement officers can legally evict you from your home. There are slightly different processes for council, housing association and different types of private tenants.
But in all cases, your landlord will need to go through the process of obtaining a court order to forcibly evict you. The only exception is if you live with your landlord, as they can change the locks while you’re out (although they still can’t forcibly evict you).
The initial notice period will depend on your tenancy, but it will take a period of months for a landlord to go through the process of obtaining a Possession Order. If you haven’t left the property by that date, your landlord can then ask the court to issue a ‘warrant of possession’, which can then also be transferred to the High Court to become a ‘writ of possession’.
On the day of eviction, the bailiffs will ask you to leave the property and hand over any keys. And you will also need to take any belongings with you. If you don’t leave, or use physical violence, the bailiffs can cause the police to help them, and you can be potentially arrested for breach of the peace.
If you believe that bailiffs may become involved in your debt problems, the best advice is to get active and take control of the situation as quickly as possible. And don’t open the door if they do arrive at your home.
It’s easy to become scared and fall into a siege mentality. But locking yourself away doesn’t mean that you can’t be taking action to end the threat of bailiff visits. There is a lot you can be doing with access to a phone or the internet, or by getting friends or specialist debt charities and organisations to help.
Take action regarding your belongings and motor vehicles straight away. Don’t wait until after the bailiffs have been, as you can only take precautions before your goods are added to an inventory. Once bailiffs have taken control of something, you can no longer take steps to protect it without committing a criminal offence. You may want to fit a door chain to ensure you can keep it closed and prevent access. Or make access via a locksmith harder with a deadlock.
Anyone potentially able to be classified as vulnerable or already arranging a repayment plan should let creditors and bailiffs know as soon as possible. Don’t be tempted to put it off, as the DebtBuffer letter templates make it quick and easy.
In many cases, companies and councils will stop using bailiffs if they’re dealing with a vulnerable person. Or if they know that you’re putting a repayment plan in place already, which will prevent bailiff action from being an option (e.g. an IVA or bankruptcy).
When you receive a ‘Notice of Enforcement’ regarding a visit, then get in contact with debt charities and organisations straight away for free advice on how you can resolve the situation as soon as possible
And if you’re not able to prevent bailiffs from turning up, it’s important to remain as calm and polite as possible. They are only allowed to enter with your permission, or if they have the right to force entry by using a locksmith. But this only applies in specific situations, and should be relatively rare. So you should still have the chance to pay without them coming in.
Before they arrive it may be worth writing down a list of things to check, and what they are allowed to do. So you can make sure all paperwork and identification is valid, and the bailiffs aren’t overstepping their powers.
Since July 2019, High Court Enforcement Agents and Certificated Enforcement Agents have been required to use body-worn cameras (this doesn’t include County Court Bailiffs), to attempt to curb bailiffs not obeying the relevant regulations. You have the right to obtain a copy within one month of your request under GDPR rules. Unfortunately some companies will try to get around this, so you may need to report a concern with the Information Commissioner’s Office.
You could also install CCTV or a video-recording doorbell which means you can not only record any interactions, but you can also remotely speak to bailiffs on your doorstep.
If at any time you feel physically threatened by a bailiff, then you should call 999.
When someone turns up at your property, ask for proof of their identity and why they’re visiting. If they say they’re a debt collector, they have no special powers and have to leave if asked.
All registered bailiffs or enforcement agents need to carry proof of who they are, which can be a badge, ID card or ‘enforcement agent certificate’, along with details of their company and a phone number for their head office.
You should check with the certificated bailiffs register, the high court enforcement officers member directory or the court that sent them to confirm. And make sure you check the warrant or writ from the court to know whether they can force entry or not.
Bailiffs should have an enforcement certificate, unless they’re a police constable, an employee of HMRC, a government department or local council, or court staff. If not, then they can be reported to the police, all enforcement action by that person fails, and you can claim damages.
The actual enforcement power (e.g. a warrant of control) doesn’t need to be signed by a judge. But it needs to be shown to the debtor or any person in authority of the premises being attended. If they refuse to show it, then the bailiff is not acting lawfully and can be removed from the property
And the name and address needs to be correct. If not you can apply for judgements to be set aside. If items have been taken from the wrong address etc, you will need to make an Interpleader claim to have it returned, along with damages for the loss of your goods.
The obvious way to stop bailiffs taking your goods and belongings is to settle your debt either partially, or in full. You can do this by entering into a repayment solution such as a DMP or IVA, and you’ll be able to let someone else communicate with creditors and bailiffs on your behalf.
Or, by entering into a Debt Relief Order or Bankruptcy if these might be a quicker and more effective way to end the stress and worry of your financial situation. If you’ve reached the point that bailiffs are being used to enforce court action, it’s unlikely your credit score will be worth protecting. At this point it’s about making your life better as quickly as possible.
But while that’s happening, you should take steps to safeguard your belongings, especially anything that is particularly special to you.
You can take your belongings to another location, or try to hide them. But you must do this before a bailiff visits and lists them. After that point it will become a criminal offence to try and disguise what you own.
It’s legal to take steps to prevent bailiffs taking your car or motor vehicle before it becomes listed as part of your debts. And even if your car isn’t seized, it can be clamped as a way to force you to make a payment.
Steps to help avoid bailiffs clamping or taking your car include:
As mentioned earlier, any car subject to a logbook loan, hire purchase or PCP finance agreement is legally owned by a third party, and therefore shouldn’t be subject to the list of items you own. But it’s a grey area, and bailiffs may well clamp or seize it anyway.
And it’s not good enough to park several streets away. Bailiffs will drive around your area hoping to spot your car, and if it’s on a public highway, then they are able to clamp or seize it. If you’re moving it, make sure it’s on private land away from your house.
Don’t be tempted to sell or transfer the car to a friend or partner after receiving a letter or notice of a visit from a bailiff, as the transfer or sale will not be declared valid.
If you believe a bailiff or enforcement agent has behaved unfairly or illegally, then you should investigate making a complaint. The first step is to send a complaint to the company that employs the bailiff, and to the creditor for the debt.
If you’re not satisfied with the responses you receive initially, then your complaint can be escalated to the relevant governing body or ombudsman for the type of debt being collected.
And if all else fails, you are also able to take complaints through the police and civil courts. If it involves an allegation of criminal activity you should contact the police. And before embarking on any court action, it’s important to get expert legal advice.
Complaints about bailiffs can include:
There are details about the relevant trade associations and how to complain about high court enforcement officers and other types of bailiff on the Government website.
By the time bailiffs are involved, you might feel helpless to sort out your financial situation. But that really isn’t the case. You have a chance of resolving your debt problems, or having them wiped out or written off at every stage of the process.
The first step should be to make sure you fully understand your situation, and get expert debt advice and help. This is available free from debt charities and organisations, and can immediately make a difference to your life by providing support and ensuring someone is on your side.
And that includes DebtBuffer, as our letter templates can help you explain to credits, bailiffs and other debt agencies that you are in the process of resolving the outstanding issues. Or that you should be given extra consideration as a vulnerable person.
Using the DebtBuffer debt options tool allows you to quickly understand what your debt options might be. For most people there is a suitable legal route that can be taken to stop debt action and get your finances in order.
The longer you delay in dealing with your problem debts the worst the situation will become. Life is too short to be living in a state of permanent fear of that knock on the door or every car you hear pulling up outside sets off a bout of anxiety. That is no way to live. If things are that bad, seek help, as soon as possible.
Remember that bailiffs often don’t have any rights to force entry into your house, and when they do it should be peaceful and respectful. You don’t have to open your door or speak to them, and any police presence should be impartial. The risk of being arrested or going to prison is very rare as long as you remain calm and polite.
|Bailiffs or enforcement officers can:|
|Visit your home, business property or your workplace|
|Gain access peacefully through a door if you let them in|
|Gain entry via a locksmith if they have a warrant allowing it|
|Visit any day between 6am – 9pm (outside these times requires a specific warrant)|
|Take any goods you’ve left on a public road, including your car or other motor vehicle|
|“take control of” your goods by listing them on an inventory|
|Return to seize goods and sell them at auction to recoup money against your debts|
|Take goods which you jointly own as well as those you own outright|
|Charge fees and expenses on top of your original debt|
|Bailiffs or enforcement officers can’t|
|Take items belonging to other people, including your children|
|Take anything which means you can’t have a basic standard of living|
|Take any medicine, medical equipment or anything needed to care for a child or older person|
|Take pets or guide dogs|
|Take vehicles, tools or equipment you need for your job or study up to a total value of £1,350|
|Take vehicles displaying a valid Blue disabled badge, a motability vehicle or one used as a main residence|
|Break down doors unless a warrant specifically allows it|
|Climb in through a window|
|Push past you or put their foot in the door to stop you closing it|
|Enter if only vulnerable people or those under 16 are present|
|Speak to anyone even from outside if only those under 12 years are present|
|Behave in a harassing or aggressive manner|
|Fail to provide enough relevant information.|
|Lie or mislead you about your options or the potential punishments|
|Fail to offer you a reasonable chance to pay what you owe|