House Doctor: 'Bailiffs keep calling for tenant who no longer lives at our flat'

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The Independent Online

Question: I've recently moved into a flat with friends but we've been approached twice by bailiffs trying to collect debts for the previous tenant.

We've told them that the individual has moved out, but they won't listen and are threatening to remove goods. Should we write to their company or is there something we can show to prove we are who we say we are? It's horribly stressful and we don't know where to turn.

Jane Merson, Southampton.

Answer: Think bailiff, think burly enforcer; but the perception is often a stretch from reality.

While much damage is done by the type of boorish behaviour you've sadly experienced, many are simply trying to chase a mix of genuinely absent tenants, absconding credit customers and court no-shows.

Bailiffs are authorised to collect debts such as fines and council tax from those who repeatedly fail to pay up. They don't have to be allowed entry – they are not allowed to force their way in but can enter through an open window or unlocked door.

Yet crucially, thanks to consumer legislation in 2008, "aggressive commercial practices" are now banned; these include pushing past a door once opened or leaving a foot in the door to prevent the tenant closing it.

Bailiffs recovering unpaid magistrates' court fines, however, do have the power to force entry, but this is always as a very last resort.

This new law – known as Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations – ultimately lets your local trading standards and even the Office of Fair Trading take action in the event of a major problem.

However, says Moira Haynes at Citizens Advice, you should be able to easily solve this problem without any such recourse.

"Your first step is to show proof of your identity – a passport or driving licence – which should stop them calling. Bailiffs may suspect that the person who owes the money still lives there, so you should also offer proof that you are the new tenants."

You can show them either a copy of your tenancy agreement or a council tax demand and offer them your landlord's or letting agent's phone number and address.

Remember that as it's not your debt, they can't make you pay it – bailiffs only want to fulfil their contract and earn commission; they simply won't get paid for repeatedly harassing you.