Charges for bailiffs’ visits may be costing businesses and householders tens of millions of pounds.

What is a bailiff?

Some debt collection agencies will threaten to send somebody to your home unless you pay. These are not bailiffs and they have no legal power so you can ignore them. If they threaten you call the police.

A bailiff is somebody appointed by the courts to collect an unpaid debt. There are three main types – County Court, certified and private – and each have different powers and authority. The debt collection agency must apply for a warrant from the County Court in order for them to legally chase the debt by seizing goods from the property.

A County Court or private bailiff will usually be sent to collect debts belonging to debt collection agencies if they apply for a warrant. The warrant will be served prior to their visit and will detail how much is owed. Bailiffs should provide identification or authorisation if you ask them.

Should I let them in? 

You do not have to let a bailiff into your home and (apart from special circumstances involving the Inland Revenue) and they cannot force their way in. They can only use ‘peaceable means’ to gain entry, such as through an unlocked door or an open window, so watch out for tricks such asking to discuss the matter indoors.

Once a bailiff has gained entry into the property, they have the right to entry if they need to visit again and also to forcibly open locked doors or cupboards. If a bailiff visits when person under the age of 18 is alone in the property they must leave. They cannot enter if a child under the age of 12 is in the house, regardless of whether an adult is present.

What can they take? 

Bailiffs are unable to take anything that could hinder your employment, such as power tools if you are a builder, or items that are vital for everyday living, such as a fridge, oven or basic furniture. They can only take items that belong, or jointly belong, to the debtor and will typically target high value items that are easy to sell at auction, such as TVs, game consoles and stereos. They are also entitled to take vehicles.

They will make a list of what is being taken and either take them there and then or offer a ‘walking possession agreement’. This means that although the items officially belong to the bailiff, they stay in the property as long as you continue to make agreed payments or pay off the debt within a set period.

Can I make a complaint or appeal?

You can appeal to the court that issued the warrant for the bailiff and in some circumstances, such as a bereavement or unemployment, they will reverse this. Application forms for suspension can be found at your local county court or though the court service website.

You can also complain if you feel the bailiff has overstepped the mark or acted beyond their powers. In the first instance you should approach the bailiff’s firm or the creditor that has employed the bailiff.

If that fails, then it is possible to complain to the relevant trade body. There are two main bodies – the Enforcement Services Association and the Association of Civil Enforcement. Both have the power to discipline the bailiff, including exclusion from membership and compensation.