Simon Read: Bailiffs are an upsetting and costly way to collect late debts
I make no apologies for returning to the subject of bailiffs this week. But I will apologise for any suggestion in my column last week that all bailiffs are unscrupulous bullies who are happy to lie their way into people's homes and help themselves to people's treasured possessions.
Look, not all bailiffs are like that. And even those that enjoy throwing their weight around and wallowing in others' misery are only doing their job, right? If people don't want a frightening knock on the door, they shouldn't get into debt.
But when you bear in mind that councils are resorting to using bailiffs to collect parking-fine fees, as research by the debt charity Money Advice Trust showed, then surely something has gone wrong? That is an unnecessarily heavy-handed approach.
Typical of when it can go wrong was explained to me by a reader – Noel Clarke – who emailed me this week.
"A friend of mine has a son living in adapted housing," he explains.
"He opened a letter addressed to the previous tenant from a firm of bailiffs. The letter was a demand in respect of council tax on a property elsewhere in the borough."
The man's mother wrote to the bailiffs explaining that her son had taken over the tenancy two years earlier, that he is severely physically disabled and profoundly deaf and that a visit from a bailiff would obviously be very distressing and confusing for him. Finally she pointed out that he had no connection to the property in question.
That should have ended the affair but the bailiff ignored the evidence and wrote back demanding proof of his identity and a copy of the tenancy agreement.
She didn't respond which led to an upsetting situation a few weeks later of returning with her son from a hospital appointment to find that a bailiff had been sitting outside the house for three hours. She showed him the company's letter and he left.
"I was concerned that the company had incurred needless expense on a visit that was always going to be fruitless and that it would be charged to a third party," Noel writes. "If by by no other means they could have verified my friend's letter by checking with their client, the council."
But councils and bailiffs don't often seem to act sensibly. Freelance journalist Heather Greig-Smith wrote about debt collection for six years as editor of Credit Today magazine and says that there's a huge gulf between best practice in the public and private sectors. For example, banks, would not get away with sending a bailiff in immediately.
Heather will report in an upcoming issue of Credit Today that the cost of a bailiff visit is expected to rise to around £300-£400 when new bailiff rules come in next year.
"To send a bailiff out for a small debt could have terrible consequences for debtors as they pay the cost," she says. In light of this, many bailiffs are expanding phone collections – which still mean an admin fee of around £75 charged to the debtor.
"This is far more than a debt-collection agency would charge, but if councils used agencies – or expanded their in-house capacities – the council would pay instead of the debtor."
This needs to be cleared up. Councils should be forced to be reasonable with struggling tenants, not just quickly put the frighteners on them.
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