The bailiff's knock at the door is something that any debtor dreads, and the experience can be scary at best, and lead to the loss of valuables at worst. If your debt problem means bailiffs may soon be calling, here's what you need to know.
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.
Can a bailiff force entry?
In most cases, bailiffs are not permitted to force their way into your home or business premises, but there are some exceptions to the rule. Unpaid county court or High Court judgements, magistrates' court fines, and monies owed to HM Revenue and Customs may result in the court giving a bailiff an order to enter your premises using reasonable force, including forcing open a gate, door, cutting a padlock or chain or breaking down a vehicle barrier.
When a bailiff calls
Aside from the above exceptions, you do not have to let a bailiff into your home. However, if they can get in through an unlocked door, they may do so. If you know when they may visit, keep doors and windows closed and locked, and if there are others in the house, advise them not to open the door to a bailiff. Should you allow them into your home, they are within their rights to take your belongings, but they may only enter peaceably and with your permission, and if a child under 16 has let them in, it does not count as peaceable entry. There are also rules about how bailiffs should deal with vulnerable people such as single parents, the elderly, disabled or seriously ill, and in some cases, they should refer back to the creditor before attempting to seize control of any items.
If the inevitable knock does come, don't open the door. Instead, talk to the bailiff through the door or letterbox, and ask for authorisation, ID and evidence of a court order to force entry, should this be the case. Even if you do decide to open the door, you do not have to let the bailiff in. Be polite and professional and advise them that they do not have permission to enter - they are not allowed to push past or prevent you from closing the door. At this point, you should explain that you will contact the creditor directly to arrange an affordable repayment plan, or if you would prefer to pay the bailiff some money towards the debt, ask to speak to them outside the house (not forgetting to close the door behind you) and be sure to get a receipt.
Where a bailiff has already been inside your home, they are legally within their rights to re-enter, either because they have reason to believe you may have brought more goods into the property since the first visit, or to inspect or take belongings they officially took control of previously. Once again, unless they have a court order to force re-entry, there are rules they must abide by, notably that they must serve two clear days' notice before attempting to enter your home.
There are rules about the powers that a bailiff may or may not have, but unfortunately, intimidation and harassment are not unheard of. If you believe they have acted unlawfully, either by threatening, harassing you or forcing their way into your home, you can complain and ask that the action be stopped. Make detailed notes of what they say, and where possible, video them on your phone or camera. Remember that they may only enter via 'usual means of entry', i.e. an unlocked door, gate or attached garage - they may not enter through a window, or by climbing over a wall, fence or locked gate.
Should you feel that the bailiff is harassing you, for example by using threats, bogus documents, assaulting you, using offensive language or taking control of goods without a court order, you can make a complaint to either the bailiff firm and/or your creditor, and include any proof you may have. If a criminal offence has been committed, you may also report the matter to police. A witness is always useful if you believe a bailiff is acting unlawfully, so if you know when they may be calling, ask a friend or family member to be in the house with you.
A visit from the bailiffs is something best avoided, and the way to do that is to contact your creditors. Most lenders are more than happy to work out an affordable repayment plan with you, so don't ignore the letters and phone calls.
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