Unregulated bailiffs 'break law to collect from debtors'

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Debt collectors appointed by the courts have become a law unto themselves, frequently using threats of violence andharassment to recover money, a report reveals today.

The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (Nacab) calls for the abolition of bailiffs, whom it describes as "abusive and aggressive", often "cheating and lying their way into people's homes".

Evidence gathered from 300 Citizens Advice Bureaux details many cases of bailiffs getting away with breaking the law because there is no proper regulation of their work. In one case bailiffs removed a man's car, which he had been given to get to hospital for kidney dialysis treatment. His £12 parking fine had soared to £400 with costs and bailiffs' charges.

Of particular concern to the report's authors was how bailiffs' fees could quickly increase the debt many times over.

Bailiffs are appointed by courts and councils to enforce debt orders. Between 1997 and 1998 1.3 million warrants were issued for them. The findings will put pressure on the Lord Chancellor to use his review of bailiffs, which ends today, to reform the laws on debt collecting, dating back to 1267.

Nacab concludes that the use of bailiffs to collect debts by seizing goods is an "archaic relic" and should be scrapped. It argues that there are fairer, more effective alternatives available to recover domestic debt, such as direct deductions from benefit payments and attachment of earnings orders.

David Harker, Nacab chief executive, added: "It is high time we moved away from a system that relies on intimidation and confusion as its main tools."

But the Certificated Bailiffs Association (CBA) said that more than £1bn was collected every year for unpaid income tax, criminal fines, VAT, parking tickets and council tax. If the proposals in the report were implemented petty crime would flourish unchecked, it claimed.

Philip Evans, a spokesman, said: "The report makes a difficult situation worse because it cultivates the illusion that almost all bailiffs are unethical and it is in some way legitimate to defy them. Bailiffs are enforcing the law and to do anything which encourages people to frustrate them is irresponsible.

"The CBA agrees with the principle that the law of distress should be modernised and there should be national standards for the training and licensing of bailiffs, but the Nacab report is not a helpful contribution."

Mr Evans claimed the type of debtor described was untypical and the research was flawed.