Bailiffs return to debt collecting in England and Wales after five-month suspension
Local authorities in England and Wales can once again use bailiffs to collect outstanding debts from today, after a five-month suspension because of coronavirus.
The use of bailiffs was suspended from 26 March 2020, but now bailiffs can resume activity as long as they adhere to new guidance on social distancing during their visits and – other than in exceptional circumstances – don't enter premises to take control of goods.
The Civil Enforcement Association (CIVEA) has told us that what counts as an exceptional circumstance can vary by council, but might include cases where, for example, a persistent and long-pursued offender has been identified.
Councils, courts and other authorities will be able to use bailiffs to enforce overdue payments for council tax, business rates, parking/traffic penalties and magistrates' fines. They will only be able to do this when their own efforts to collect money owed have been exhausted, and they will be collecting debts incurred before the coronavirus pandemic.
The news applies to England and Wales only. Scotland's equivalent sheriff officers are only carrying out urgent enforcement tasks at present, which do not include debt collection. In Northern Ireland, officers from the Enforcement of Judgments Office have continued to make debt-collection visits throughout the pandemic.
What are the new rules bailiffs must stick to?
The Ministry of Justice has published guidance for bailiffs to prevent virus transmission. Bailiffs must:
- Observe two-metre social distancing, or one-metre social distancing with masks or other risk mitigation items if two metres isn't possible.
- Terminate a visit if an individual tries to breach social distancing.
- Avoid unduly raising their voice.
- Make reasonable attempts to contact residential households to assess risk before visiting.
- Ask on arrival if anyone in the household is symptomatic or shielding, and terminate the visit if so.
- Wear a face covering wherever possible on premises or in vehicles.
- Wear disposable gloves if likely to come into contact with objects such as doors and doorbells.
What are my rights if I'm visited by a bailiff?
Before you let a bailiff in, ask to see proof of identity, what company they're from, a telephone contact number and a breakdown of what you owe.
You don't have to let them in to your home, and if you can't afford to pay in full, you can offer to pay in monthly or weekly instalments. They don't have to accept this, although it will show your intent to pay.
What do debt charities and bailiffs say?
Richard Lane, director of external affairs for debt charity StepChange, said: "This rushed and premature return to bailiff activity puts people at risk and will make debts harder to repay.
"We welcome the Government's new guidance on how these visits should be conducted, but we still have concerns about how it will ensure this guidance is followed. We would also question, while still in the midst of the crisis, whether bailiff visits are a useful way to deal with arrears from vulnerable households.
"The lack of oversight only highlights the urgent and long-standing need for an independent regulator. We are pleased that the Government was mindful of our concerns, but fundamental reform remains essential."
The bailiff trade association CIVEA says in a statement on its website: "It is vital for local authorities to collect debts that were incurred before the coronavirus lockdown to fill the funding gaps in their budgets.
"Between March and June, councils incurred £4.8 billion of extra costs and income losses. Despite extra central Government funding, local authorities have warned the budget shortfall in England and Wales could top £7.4 billion."