It's something that most of us would rather never think about. The early morning knock at the door or the legal letter thudding on to the doormat, both marking the first approach of the dreaded bailiff.
And in these financially straitened times, more and more Britons are falling foul of their debts and coming into contact for the first time with debt collectors.
According to a new campaign launched by nationwide debt charity the Money Advice Trust, the tactics used by some bailiffs – ranging from blagging their way into homes to simply lying and intimidating – is leaving consumers confused and at a huge disadvantage. It adds thatmany consumers don't know their rights when bailiffs knock at the door and often let them in when they don't have to.
The situation has got so serious that on Friday the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) announced that it was looking at fresh regulation of bailiffs. It will now be consulting on what a likely law curtailing the actions of bailiffs will look like. "Too many people have experienced intrusive, expensive and stressful bailiff action and more often than not, the public do not hold bailiffs in high regard," Jonathan Djanogly MP, secretary of state at the MOJ, said.
For the uninitiated, a bailiff is someone whose job it is to take away things belonging to people who owe money. The things are then sold and the money is used to pay back the debt.
To use a bailiff, creditors must obtain a "warrant of execution" from a County Court. Once armed with a warrant, they have certain powers (unlike debt collectors) and can enter a debtor's house and seize property. Although bailiffs can be used to recover unpaid loans and credit card debts, they're more often used to recover unpaid tax and fines.
"Within England and Wales bailiffs are used extensively to collect public debt – fines, income taxes, council tax and business rates, parking penalties, VAT and child support maintenance," says John Kruse, author of Bailiffs: The Law and Your Rights. "In addition judgments in the County Court and High Court are enforced and commercial landlords recover rent arrears this way."
There are strict rules about how bailiffs can gain entry to a property and it was this issue the Money Advice Trust examined last week.
Even if they have a warrant you don't have to let bailiffs into your home. They can only enter if you invite them in or they get in through an open door or window. They're not allowed to force their way past you or put their foot in the door. The only exception is bailiffs employed by the Inland Revenue who can get a warrant to force entry.
Gaining peaceful access to a property is a key issue when bailiffs first visit. Once they've been inside your home once, they have certain rights. They can seize goods straight away or come back another time, break in if necessary, and seize items then.
The Money Advice Trust found that many bailiffs blag their way into a property the first time they visit. Part of the charity's campaign involved setting up a #bailiffblag hashtag on Twitter and encouraging people to tweet their experiences of bailiffs lying to gain entry.
It found an oft-repeated trick was to ask to come in and use the toilet or claim that being in possession of a warrant meant the householder had to let them in.
"The most common complaint seemed to be bailiffs threatening to return with a locksmith," says Money Advice Trust spokesperson Paul Crayston. "The next biggest complaint was about lack of protection from the police. Meanwhile one of the most upsetting blags we get a lot is: 'Do you want your children to have to watch you get carted away in handcuffs?' This is obviously deeply distressing for people not sure of their rights."
Other bailiffs pretended to be repair people for the intercom system in a block of flats with others posing as council workers looking to carry out maintenance work. Some bailiffs told debtors they would be charged for every minute the bailiff stood outside – but this isn't true.
Once they're in your house, bailiffs are allowed to go into all rooms and break open any locked doors or cupboards. They can either take the goods away there and then or make clear an intention to seize them later either verbally or by attaching a mark to them.
If they don't remove items they are likely to ask you to sign a 'walking possession agreement'. This means they can come back and take certain listed goods if you fail to stick to an agreed payment plan for the debt in question.
There are rules about what bailiffs can take, though. They can't take stuff that's rented or hired or belongs to someone else (but it will be down to the debtor to prove this), or tools, equipment, books or vehicles used for business or employment. They can't take your clothes, bedding or essential household equipment such as the fridge.
However, bailiffs can take your car unless you can prove it's on a hire purchase agreement.
But although bailiffs are oftenpainted as the bad guys, industry insiders argue that their work is crucial to society, and not a particularly nice job to do.
"The general public don't realise that over half of the debts that private bailiffs deal with are for criminal penalties like drugs, prostitution, assault and possession of offence weapons," explains Jamie Waller,chief executive of bailiffs JBW Group.
Mr Waller says that the majority of complaints arise because the public don't understand the means by which a bailiff may enter e.g. through an open window or unlocked door. However, he concedes that on occasions some bailiffs push their luck when gaining entry.
"While I don't personally approve of this I do support that they do adifficult job and on some occasions errors are made," he says. "Gaining entry into a property to remove goods is a difficult task. Less than one per cent of the four million cases that bailiffs deal with each year lead to complaint."
A visit from bailiffs is a sure sign that your debt situation is out ofcontrol. However, it's not too late to negotiate a payment plan with creditors. Organisations such as National Debtline, the Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS) and Citizens' Advice can help you do this, and can even talk to you on the phone while the bailiff is on the doorstep.
Bear in mind that if you do get a visit from the bailiffs there'll be extra fees to pay. A bailiff will add their own charges to your debt, and the amount they charge will vary depending on the type of debt and how much you owe.
"The most common type of charge is to cover the cost of taking, storing and auctioning your goods – but bailiffs can also impose other charges, including for the time and effortinvolved in visiting your home," says CCCS spokesman Matt Hartley.
"Always ask for a fees breakdown so that you can check that you're not being ripped-off."
*If the bailiffs haven't got into your home before, the basic rule is they can't come in unless you or another adult lets them in. However, the bailiffs can get in without your permission if they can do so without using force, such as entering through an unlocked door or open window. This is called "peaceful entry".
*Bailiffs are allowed to force their way into your home only in particular situations (e.g. for unpaid fines or collecting income tax or VAT). If they do so when they shouldn't, you can complain to the police or the organisation who instructed the bailiffs.
*If the bailiff is enforcing a county court judgement (CCJ) and they break the rules, you can complain to the relevant court. If they are a trade association member, you can take up your complaint with them.