Bailiffs - know your rights

Debt is a stressful experience without the threat of losing your possessions to bailiffs. If you are dreading the inevitable knock at the door, you should know your rights so that you don't fall foul of unfair or unlawful treatment.

Bailiffs - your rights

Pic: Getty

What is a bailiff?
A bailiff is employed to take away someone's belongings in order to pay back a debt that is owed. Though creditors will generally try other means of getting a debt repaid, if you fail to make payments or ignore their demands, they may instruct a bailiff to visit your home. Bailiffs may also be used to evict you from your home should you fall into arrears on your mortgage.

It is important to note that debt collectors do not have the same legal powers as bailiffs. A real bailiff will have special authorisation to act, usually from the court.

What to do when a bailiff visits
First and foremost, you should ask for proof of their identity, along with documentation proving that they have authorisation - a copy of the original court order from the creditor, a copy of their authorisation, and proof of their certificate if they are a certificated bailiff. Always check that the documents are still valid by making a note of the dates.

If you choose not to let the bailiffs into your home, it is best to remain polite and businesslike. Keep windows and doors closed, and inform the bailiff through the closed door that you will be calling the creditor to arrange paying the debt another way. You don't have to let them in, and if a child accidentally opens the door to a bailiff, it will not count as peaceful entry as children are not deemed responsible for giving the bailiffs permission to enter.

In general, bailiffs are not allowed to force their way into your home, but there are situations in which they can do so lawfully. Should a bailiff force their way into your home without good reason or court authorisation, you should complain to the person who instructed them, report the matter to the police, and apply to the court to have the bailiff's certificate withdrawn, and your belongings back.

And if bailiffs bother you after 9pm or before 6am, on Sundays, bank holidays or religious festivals, it could count as harassment. Check with Citizens Advice if you believe this is the case.

What can they take?
It's important to note that moving your belongings to another property won't help. With a court order in place, a bailiff can theoretically take your possessions from anywhere in England and Wales.

If you refuse them entry, they can legally take a vehicle from outside the property, though sometimes they will simply clamp the car until you pay a fine. In the event that your car is on hire purchase, the bailiff cannot take it, but you must provide proof of the hire purchase agreement.

Once a bailiff has gained entry to your home, they can take any of your belongings, and sometimes jointly owned items. However, they must leave clothing, bedding, essential household equipment, basic furniture, and tools, vehicles or other equipment necessary for your work. They are also forbidden from taking items that belong to your children. These are known as protected goods. In total, the bailiff should take only the goods needed to raise the amount of the debt that you owe.

And remember, they can search the house thoroughly, but not your person. If after a reasonable amount of time, they cannot find anything to take, they are deemed trespassers and must leave.

Seizing goods
Once they have identified the goods they will take, they must impound them, meaning you no longer have control of the items. This is most commonly done by what is known as a walking possession of the goods, where the items are listed and you sign an agreement. If this is the case, be sure that you are the person named on the warrant or order, and read the list carefully to ensure that no protected goods are listed.

Where the goods seized do not amount to the full value of the money you owe, they may take some items and try to agree a repayment schedule with you to pay off the rest of the debt, plus their own charges.

Finally, if you are notified that a bailiff has been instructed to visit your home, don't ignore the situation. Most lenders or creditors would prefer to sort out a repayment plan so always call them to discuss the situation rather than ignoring their demands. If you are struggling with debt or would like to know more about your rights when it comes to bailiffs, visit the Citizens Advice Bureau for further information.

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