They think it's all over ... but it isn't yet

The poll tax is gone, but non-payers aren't forgotten. What should you do if the bailiff knocks?
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The Independent Online
THE POLL TAX is gone but not forgotten. Not by local authorities, anyway, which are still owed pounds 1.2bn by hundreds of thousands of people. And instead of writing it off, increasing numbers are sending in the bailiffs.

Local authorities do not have the right to grant amnesties on outstanding poll tax. A spokesman for Lambeth council, which has one of the highest poll tax arrears in the country, explains: "The council does not have the right to write off arrears unless it can show that it cannot be collected. This means, in reality, that the defaulters have either died, disappeared or never existed in the first place." Lambeth has employed professional tracers to find non-payers and claims considerable success.

The poll tax, or community charge, was replaced by the council tax in April 1993. But local authorities were obliged to maintain a register listing the names and addresses of those liable for the old tax. If your name is on the list, the council has a record of the extent of your liability. You may have avoided being registered - but don't count on it. If, for example, you were sharing accommodation at the time, a flatmate or landlord may have passed on your name.

So where do you stand if the bailiffs turn up on your doorstep? "Basically, if it reaches this stage, you're in it deep," says one lawyer.

The first thing to note is that they may well turn up, day or night, without prior warning. You may have had a court summons, but not necessarily. Local authorities are entitled to send the bailiffs in anyway.

Bear in mind that the council is likely to have filled your letterbox with demands and so will be pretty frustrated by the time it sends the bailiffs round. And although they are required to work within strict rules, do not expect them to be over-friendly. Debt collection, in the words of one, is a "highly competitive market".

Local authorities have a statutory right to "distress" in respect of the unpaid tax. This means they can seize possessions to the value of the outstanding debt. The bailiffs should carry written authorisation which they must produce on demand from the errant taxpayer.

Bailiffs do not have the right to break the door down or force entrance in any way. But they can come in through open doors or windows. If a child or flatmate answers the door, don't be surprised if they try to wheedle their way in. However, they are not allowed to use deception to gain access to a debtor's home.

You don't have to let them in. But if you refuse to answer the door, don't be surprised if they hang around outside for a while, hoping to make you feel sufficiently uncomfortable to give up.

At this point you will probably be worried.

You will usually have the opportunity to settle the debt with the bailiffs. But if they are outside, you may prefer to wait for them to leave and then contact the authority to arrange payment. If, however, you don't pay later, then you will expose yourself to further action, including court fines and possibly even imprisonment.

What happens if the bailiffs are in your home? Sometimes they will only take "walking possession" of the goods. This means the goods remain on the premises but are impounded; the bailiffs will normally slap stickers on them. If you should subsequently try to dispose of or remove the goods, you will be guilty of serious judicial contempt - a criminal offence. Bailiffs have the right to take away goods and then sell them to satisfy the debt.

If the bailiffs either seize or take walking possession of goods, they should give the debtor a copy of an agreement listing the items affected. Worse still, they might charge a daily fee for impoundment.

The bailiffs do not have the right to seize the possessions of innocent third parties. Proving you are not the person they are after - perhaps it was a previous occupant who did not pay - will usually be enough to persuade them to go away and check.

Cars are often a popular target for bailiffs. You could wake up in the morning to find they have towed your car away. However, the relevant documentation confirming the seizure should still be left with the debtor.

According to the Citizens' Advice Bureau, the best way to avoid the arrival of the bailiffs is to contact any creditor at an early stageto negotiate a new repayment schedule. This approach is endorsed by a spokesman for Hammersmith & Fulham council, who says: "We only use bailiffs in the last resort, and up to the stage they become involved, the opportunity remains for residents to get in touch with us and discuss repayment plans. We strongly recommend that people who are experiencing problems paying off their poll tax and council tax debts contact us before it reaches a stage when legal action is required."

A Lambeth council spokeswoman says: "Given that court orders for the repayment of arrears can, depending on the individual' s circumstances, stretch over a very long period of time, we are prepared to be flexible. It is better to reach agreement before the individual increases his liability by way of court fines and costs. Interest is not charged on the arrears outstanding under the council's repayment scheme."

For further free advice contact your Citizens' Advice Bureau or local Law Centre, typically funded partly by local authorities and supported by solicitors.