British Bailiffs are turning ugly

Council Tax bill

The booming multi-million pound bailiff industry is leaving Britons feeling threatened and powerless. And thanks to increasing numbers reaching the end of their financial tether, thousands more are at the mercy of the bailiffs.

So just how bad have things become, and what are your rights?
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Figures suggest the five biggest bailiff companies earn a combined revenue in excess of £60 million, as cash-strapped Britons increasingly run up unaffordable debts.

More suffer

Citizens Advice says that there has been a 38% increase in problems with private bailiffs in the last five years. Last year alone, the charity helped with a total of 60,652 problems with bailiffs.

The biggest problems relate to a series of different kinds of threats made by the bailiffs. Some two in five threatened the use of force to get in, while 16% said they would call the police to gain entry. In reality they have to be invited in, or walk in through an open door. They cannot break into your property.

A quarter threatened to take items that are banned from removal by bailiffs, and 29% threatened to seize goods that belonged to someone else. You have rights here too. They can take luxury items such as your TV or games console, but cannot take essentials such as your work tools, fridge or cooker, and they can't take someone else's belongings - if you can prove that the item in question belongs to someone else.

Unsurprisingly in 78% of the cases, bailiff action has brought on stress and anxiety. In 35% of cases bailiff action has exacerbated people's mental or physical health problems. Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy said: "We see cases where bailiffs overstate their powers, act aggressively and bump up debts by levying excessive fees and charges."

Government action

Central government has been moved to take action, bringing in new guidance for bailiffs in an effort to tackle heavy-handed tactics. The new rules set out that councils should no longer be collecting 'contractual kickbacks' from bailiffs. Shockingly this has been common. For example the north-west London borough of Harrow was expected to recover £60,000 by contractually making its bailiffs hand over 8% of their fees.

The rules also warn against employing those seeking to exploit residents through 'phantom visits' or excessive fees. So-called 'phantom visits' are essentially just putting a letter through the letterbox without trying to speak to anyone or negotiate repayment - for which bailiffs charge exorbitant fees.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: "It is unacceptable for councils to employ burly bailiffs with heavy-handed tactics like kicking down doors, making phantom visits or charging excessive fees - it is unfair and damages a council's standing in the community. Today our new guidance is crystal clear: it is time to stop the dodgy practices where town halls collect contractual kickbacks from bailiffs that will do almost anything to make money."

But does it go far enough?

Joanna Elson, Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust, said it doesn't: "We are pleased the Government sees fit to improve bailiff practices, but are concerned little will change as a result of today's announcement" she said.

"Advice charities like ours have worked long and hard with successive Governments to try and resolve the bad practice from bailiffs that our advisers hear on an ever-increasing basis. Unfortunately the changes announced do not tackle our most basic concerns about protecting vulnerable people from bad practice."

"There remains no independent oversight of the bailiff industry, no independent complaints body to make it easy for people to report bad practice, and no clear sanctions for bailiffs who break the rules. Additionally, there is no clarity that the new fee structure will not increase what bailiffs can charge people in debt."

Protect yourself

Citizens Advice is calling on local authorities to protect people from bailiffs. Guy says that given that a third of problems with bailiffs are over council tax debts, councils ought to help people early on who are struggling to pay their bills.

However, in the interim, the only way to stay safe from bailiffs is to act before it gets to this stage. Talk to those you owe money to before things get out of hand, and ask for repayment terms you can afford to stick to.

If it's too late, talk to a debt charity like StepChange or the Money Advice Trust. They will negotiate with lenders and people like the council for you, or help you understand alternative options open to you such as an IVA.

They don't have a magic wand: they won't make the debts go away, but they should avoid the risk of a heavy-handed bailiff appearing at your door.

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British Bailiffs are turning ugly

The law states that any goods you buy from a UK retailer should be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable amount of time.

This applies even if you buy items in a sale or with a discount voucher. You may have to insist on these rights being respected, though.

Useful phrases to use when you want to show you mean business include, "according to the Sale of Goods Act 1979" and, if it's a service, "according to the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982".

Some shops will allow you to exchange goods without a receipt, but they can refuse to should they wish.

If the goods are faulty, however, another proof of purchase such as a bank statement should work just as well.

If you attempt to return goods within four weeks of the purchase, your chances of getting a full refund are much higher as you can argue that you have not "accepted" them.

After this point, you can only really expect an exchange, repair or part-refund.

The updated Consumer Credit Act states that card companies are jointly and severally liable for credit card purchases of between £100 and £60,260 (whether or not you paid just a deposit or the whole amount on your card).

Anyone spending between these amounts on their credit card is therefore protected if the retailer or service provider goes bust, their online shopping never arrives or the items in question are faulty or not as described.

Start by writing to the agency asking it to either remove or change the entry that you think is wrong. It will investigate the matter and find out whether you have been the victim of ID theft or a bank's mistake.

Within 28 days from receipt of your letter the agency should tell you how the bank has responded. If the bank agrees to change the entry, they will authorise the agency to update their records. They should also send updates to any other credit reference agencies they use.

You can also contact your lender directly to query a mistake. If the lender agrees to the discrepancy, ask them to confirm this in writing on their letterhead and send a copy to the agency, asking them to update your file.

The FOS settles disputes between financial companies such as banks and consumers.

If a financial organisation rejects a complaint you make about its services, you can therefore escalate that complaint to the FOS - as long as you have given the company in question at least eight weeks to respond.

The FOS will then investigate the case, and could force the company to offer you compensation should it see fit.

Bailiffs are allowed to take some of your belongings to sell on to cover certain debts, including unpaid Council Tax and parking fines.

They can, for example, take so-called luxury items such as TVs or games consoles. However, they cannot take essentials such as fridges or clothes.

What's more, they can only generally enter your home to take your stuff if you leave a door or window open or invite them in.

You are therefore within your rights to refuse them access and to ask for related documents such as proof of their identity. If they try to force their way in, you can also call the police to stop them.

Private sector debt collectors do not have the same powers as bailiffs, whatever they tell you.

They cannot, for example, enter your home and take your possessions in lieu of payment.

In fact, they can only write, phone, or visit your home to talk to you about paying back the debt. As with bailiffs, you can also call the police if you feel physically threatened.

Thanks to the Distance Selling Regulations, you actually have more rights buying online or by phone than on the High Street.

You can, for example, send most goods back within a week, for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault.

You will usually need to pay for the return delivery, though. The seller must then refund you within 30 days.

We enter into contracts all the time, whether it be to join a gym, switch energy supplier or take out a loan.

In most cases, once you've signed a contract, you are legally bound by it. In some situations, however, you have the right to cancel it within a certain timeframe.

Credit agreements, for example, can be cancelled within 14 days. And online retailers must tell you about your cancellation rights for any contract made up to stand up legally.

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