Knock, knock: bailiffs at the door is no joke

Leave unpaid bills to mount up and it might not be long before unwelcome visitors start calling, warns Sam Dunn

'Bailiff": the word conjures up images of gangs of heavies barging their way into your home and making off with your TV.

The reality is somewhat less melodramatic. The seizing of personal possessions - to be sold at auction - is usually a last resort for the councils, companies and individuals attempting to recoup millions of pounds in unpaid fines and debts each year.

You might think a bailiff could never darken your door. But a pile of unpaid parking penalties or (if you live in London) congestion charge fines could, if ignored, result in a warrant to take money or goods from you. On top of this, you will be charged a hefty recovery fee.

Debt recovery is a growth industry in the UK. And John Kruse, a Citizens Advice Bureau adviser, says that most bailiffs are concerned with everyday debt such as non-payment of council tax and parking fines.

"If there are large bills and you happen to have a very efficient local council, the bailiffs could be called quite quickly," he says. "[If the fines are serious enough] it could be a matter of a couple of months from the first fine."

Of course, there are a number of steps between a missed council tax payment and the shadow of burly men at your front door. Genuine mistakes are easily rectified, but persistent non-payment, whether deliberate refusal or simple forgetfulness, will lead to trouble. Try to come to an agreement with your creditors so the situation doesn't get out of hand.

"Most creditors will accept a very, very small monthly amount from a customer rather than pay the extra cost of bailiffs," says Chris Tye, administrative director of the Association of Civil Enforcement Agencies (ACEA), the trade body for bailiffs. "We don't believe there are that many people who cannot come to some kind of arrangement to pay a debt."

Before the bailiffs turn up, a court needs to grant them authority to do so. The first step for a company owed money is to sue the debtor in the local county court. It will try to do this if, for example, a customer buys a television using a store card but then refuses, or is unable, to pay. Further defiance of a court summons and final ruling then allows the company to appoint the court's own bailiffs to get its money back.

Many people don't realise that, if things get to this stage, they will have to pay a bailiff fee as well as the original debt. And if your possessions are actually removed and sold to help pay your debts, it will cost you even more, because second-hand durable goods usually have a low resale value.

The longer you refuse to co-operate, the more it will cost you, says the ACEA's Mr Tye. "It's in your interests to work with the bailiff."

A visit to your home by bailiffs is a frightening prospect for anybody, but, in this event, you do have legal rights. You don't have to let bailiffs into your house on their first visit. They can't force their way in, though if you have left a window or door unlocked, they are within their rights to enter your home in this way. A bailiff must also show you a warrant from the county court relating to the debt.

In certain circumstances, bailiffs can legally use force to enter your home. If, on their first visit, you grant them admittance in what the industry calls "peaceful" circumstances - usually to work out a repayment plan or to identify goods that could be sold to raise cash - it's in your interest to let them enter in the same way when they return. If you change your mind and decide not to pay, they have the right to break into your house and remove items, in what is known as a "walking possession agreement".

There are certain items they cannot touch: anything you use for work is off limits, as are your basic living requirements, such as a bed or oven.

It's important to distinguish between bailiffs and debt collectors. Many creditors use debt-collection companies, but their agents have no immediate legal powers to enter your home or take goods; they need a court order to use bailiffs.

Not surprisingly, people do complain about bailiffs to the ACEA. If serious breaches of practice can be proved, compensation is payable. But it is, of course, far better not to get into this situation in the first place. Keep an eye on your finances and, if you find yourself sinking into debt, draw up a repayment scheme and present it to your creditors. If that doesn't work, contact the Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS) for free advice.

Contacts: your local Citizens Advice Bureau or www.adviceguide.org.uk; www.acea.org.uk; www.cccs.co.uk

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