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What bailiffs can and can’t do

Advice Now Web 0023 OpUsually you will find that if you owe someone money, they will be fairly reasonable as long as you stay in touch with them and show that you are willing to repay your debts. However, sometimes you might not take action early enough, or you might find yourself faced with a pushy or aggressive creditor who won't accept your offers of repayment. If things get really bad, they may send a bailiff round.

Auctions
If possible, you don't want the bailiff to take your things to sell at auction. They are likely to sell for far less than it will cost you to replace them, and you have to pay a fee – which only adds to the debt. It usually works out as a very expensive way to pay off a debt.

In many cases the company, organisation, council or person you owe money to (the law calls them the ‘creditor’) will have to take court action against you before they can do this.

The bailiff’s job is to get you to pay the debt; if necessary by taking away some of your belongings to sell at auction in order to produce enough money to repay the creditor.

If a bailiff visits you, you have a number of legal rights. Sometimes these rights depend on the type of debt the bailiff is collecting. In this section we give you an overview of bailiffs’ powers.

When can a bailiff come round?

  • In most cases, bailiffs are allowed to come round at any time of the day or night and on any day of the week except Sundays, Good Friday or Christmas Day. (Government guidance on how bailiffs should behave called ‘The National Standards for Enforcement Agents’ recommends that bailiffs only come between 6am and 9pm. However it is a voluntary code and not enforceable by law. You can find these standards in 'Links to other websites').
  • If the debt involves unpaid rent, bailiffs are not allowed to come round between sunset and sunrise, and not on a Sunday.
  • If the debt involves unpaid VAT then bailiffs may only come round between 8.00am and 8.00pm. If you run your business outside these times, then the bailiffs can start removing your things at any time and on any day when you are trading.

Where can a bailiff take my belongings from?

In general, bailiffs can go anywhere in England or Wales to find your belongings. In practice, they will have either a business or home address for you, and this will probably be the only place they visit.

If the debt is for rent arrears, then a bailiff can only take belongings from the rented property for which the arrears are due. If you remove your belongings to try and avoid the bailiff getting them, then they have a right to look for them at another address.

How can they go about it?

Most bailiffs do not have the right to force their way in to carry out their job. They may only enter peacefully and with your permission. This rule applies in most cases, but there are a few exceptions:

  • Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs can get permission to force entry on their first visit (the law calls this ‘initial entry’) for income tax arrears.
  • Civil court bailiffs can force initial entry to premises that are not a home (the law calls these ‘non-domestic premises’); but this is rare.
  • If you have already allowed a bailiff in once and they have identified and reserved the goods they want to sell (the law calls this ‘levying distress’ or ‘seizing’ goods) then if you refuse to let them in when they return to collect these goods, they can use force to re-enter.
  • Bailiffs who have authority to remove possessions to pay a fine imposed by the magistrate’s court, for example as punishment for committing a criminal offence, have the power to force entry to your home or business address. But they should only do this as a last resort and where it is reasonable and necessary.

Any other use of force by a bailiff would make the removal of your belongings illegal.

Beware!

In most cases, the law does not allow bailiffs to force their way into your home unless you have let them in peacefully before.

Some bailiffs will try various tactics to get around the rules. They may:

  • attempt to walk straight into your home as soon as the door is open;
  • decide not to try to enter the house itself but to seize goods outside, such as a parked car on a driveway;
  • enter through windows or skylights that are left open;
  • use ladders to climb up to upstairs windows or over back walls.

Once they are in, a bailiff is allowed to break open internal doors including to cupboards or attics.

If bailiffs enter your home or business illegally, there are some situations when you may be able to start court proceedings to get your possessions back and get compensation. But you will need to get advice. See More help and Advice.

What can a bailiff take?

Bailiffs can take items such as TVs, cars, bikes and games consoles. In practice, they probably won’t be interested in most household furniture because the resale value is very low.

They cannot usually take your basic household goods (such as your washing machine, cooker, vacuum cleaner or fridge, clothing and bedding) or things you use to make a living (such as tools, or a computer).

They can't take things that belong to your children or to someone else. But they may be able to take things you own jointly with someone else. The proceeds of the sale of jointly owned goods have to be divided between the owners, so only half can go to pay off your debt.

January 2014

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