New rules 'needed to control bailiffs'

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THE 'inconsistent and fragmented' regulations governing the powers of bailiffs to seize goods must be reformed, the Lord Chancellor says.

In a consultation document on the future of debt collection, published yesterday, Lord Mackay of Clashfern says the key issue facing the Government is how to impose uniform standards of behaviour on the unknown number of bailiffs operating in Britain.

The poll tax, which resulted in millions of non-payment court orders, pushed concern about the ability of unregulated private bailiffs and court officials to remove people's property to new heights.

Lord Mackay says he accepts that the law is confusing. 'Controls are patchy,' his consultation document says, 'and it is not always clear where the lines of accountability lie'. Bailiffs appointed by the county court are subject to tight regulation. But private bailiffs employed by local councils, credit card companies and shops are 'subject to no formal controls over their organisation and management'.

The consultation document says that Lord Mackay believes all bailiffs, whether civil servants or private contractors, should have to meet the same professional standards and be subject to the same disciplinary action.

However, the document makes clear that the consultation process may well result in the Government giving more powers to bailiffs.

At present, no bailiffs, apart from those working for the Inland Revenue, have the right to break into a debtor's home. But Lord Mackay says he will consider submissions on whether this limitation is necessary and will ask whether force can be used in some circumstances.

In addition, county court bailiffs and sheriffs cannot seize goods a debtor needs for his business nor the clothing, bedding, furniture and household goods 'as are necessary for satisfying the basic domestic needs of that person and his family'. Lord Mackay will also consider whether these limitations should remain.

The Lord Chancellor's Department made clear that it was more concerned about the better collection of debt than complaints from lawyers and poll tax defaulters about seized goods being sold by bailiffs well below their real value.

'It is in the public interest. . . for the state to facilitate a market in which credit can function,' the document says.

'The state must therefore ensure that a credible system of enforcement is available.'

The logic of Lord Mackay's arguments leads to a national system of regulation for bailiffs. But the Lord Chancellor's Department made clear that this could be too costly. It added that it wanted to follow the Government's contracting-out policy by encouraging diversity. Different bailiff businesses could compete for court enforcement work, it suggested.

In an attempt to reconcile the conflicting demands for uniform regulation and cost-saving competition, the Lord Chancellor invited submissions on whether it would be better to control bailiffs through an executive agency, a private self-regulatory body or a public regulatory body.