A visit from a bailiff can be a very frightening and distressing
experience. This section explains what a bailiff can and cannot
do if they visit your home and what your rights are.
This section gives general information on bailiffs only. If you
need more information, help or advice you should contact your nearest
Citizens Advice Bureau or advice centre as soon as possible.
What is a bailiff?
A bailiff is someone authorised to collect a debt on behalf of
a creditor. A creditor is someone you owe money to. There are
different types of bailiffs - e.g. county court bailiffs, certificated
bailiffs and private bailiffs who can be used to collect different
types of debts. These include county court judgments, unpaid
council tax, magistrates court fines, unpaid maintenance to the
Child Support Agency and outstanding rent.
Different bailiffs have differing powers to collect debts. However,
there are certain rules that apply to all bailiffs. Unless stated
otherwise, the information in this leaflet applies to any bailiff.
Can anyone be a bailiff?
Yes, providing they have legal authority to carry out their actions.
Some creditors prefer to use certificated bailiffs to collect
their debts. ''Certificated'' means that the firm of bailiffs
has provided references to the county court and the bailiffs
they employ are considered to be 'fit and proper' persons. Bailiffs
collecting rent arrears and road traffic penalties must be certificated.
It is worth remembering that both men and women can be bailiffs!
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What 'legal authority' must a bailiff have?
A bailiff must be legally authorised to collect the debt on behalf
of the creditor. The authority is normally known as a 'warrant',
or 'warrant of execution' if the bailiff is recovering money
owed under a county court judgment.
Bailiffs used by the magistrates court to collect unpaid council
tax, outstanding fines, compensation or unpaid maintenance will
be acting on either a 'distress warrant' or a 'liability order'
issued by the magistrates court.
If you are in arrears, creditors will sometimes send representatives
to your home to try and negotiate repayments with you. These people
might be called 'advisers', 'collectors' or 'advisers'. They
do not have powers to enter your home and seize your goods.
How do I know it is a bailiff at my door?
Bailiffs should provide identification or authorisation if you
ask them to. Bailiffs collecting for rent must show their certificate
from the county court if you ask them to. Bailiffs collecting
unpaid council tax must show written authorisation from the local
authority. See also 'Will I get advance notice of a bailiff visit?'
Can a bailiff call at night or on a weekend?
Only bailiffs collecting rent are obliged to call between sunrise
and sunset, all other bailiffs can call at any time of day or
night. However most bailiffs should call at a 'reasonable' time,
either during normal office hours or between 8.00 a.m. or 8 p.m.
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Can a bailiff force his/her way into my house?
Most bailiffs do not have the right to force their way into your
home to seize your goods. The only exception is that bailiffs
from the Collector of Taxes (Inland Revenue) can get a warrant
to force entry, but this is very rare.
All other bailiffs have a right of peaceful entry only. This means
that they cannot use force to enter your home, for example, by
breaking a window or a door. However, they can enter your property
through an open door or window (front and back) and can climb over
fences and gates, but cannot break them down. See also ''If a bailiff
does gain peaceful entry to my house, what will they do?''
You do not have to let a bailiff into your house. A bailiff cannot
force their way past you if you answer the door. If all your doors
and windows are securely closed they will not be able to gain peaceful
entry to your house unless you let them in.
Bailiffs are well aware of their limited powers and may use a
variety of different means to gain entry peaceably. They may attempt
to walk in as soon as a door is opened. They may ask if they can
use your telephone to check if an arrangement is satisfactory with
their office. They may simply ask you if you would prefer to discuss
matters inside. You do not have to go along with any of these methods.
Can I be arrested or imprisoned for not letting a bailiff
into my house?
No. If a bailiff is accompanied by the police, they are only there
to prevent a breach of the peace. You cannot be arrested for refusing
to allow a bailiff into your home.
You cannot be imprisoned for not paying your debts. However, non-payment
of council tax, child maintenance or magistrates court fines can
lead to imprisonment if you 'wilfully refuse' to pay. This means
that the magistrates must be satisfied that you have the money
but choose not to pay. You should be required to attend a magistrates
court means enquiry hearing before this is decided. This gives
you the chance to explain why you have not paid.
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If a bailiff does gain peaceful entry to my house what
will they do?
Once gaining entry to your home, a bailiff will usually try to
find and seize any goods of value belonging to the person who owes
the debt or who is named on the warrant.
Once in the house the bailiff has the right to go into all rooms
and can break open any locked door or cupboard inside your house.
If the bailiff gains peaceful entry s/he has the right to call
again and enter even without your permission, i.e. s/he can break
in and remove your goods.
Any attempt to remove a bailiff from your property once they have
gained peaceful entry is assault and you could be taken to court
Once in the house, a bailiff will attempt to seize your goods
in order to sell them off at public auction to raise money to pay
the debt that you owe. The bailiff will make clear an intention
to seize various items, either verbally, or by attaching a mark
to them, or by touching them. This is sometimes called levying
distress or distraining upon goods.
Once the bailiff has seized goods, they have a number of options.
They can either remove items they have seized immediately from
the property to be stored and eventually sold at public auction.
Alternatively, they can leave someone on the premises to guard
the items that have been seized or, in the case of bailiffs collecting
rent, secure items that have been seized in your home. These last
two options are very rarely used.
The most likely outcome is that the bailiff will ask you to sign
a 'walking possession agreement'.
What is a walking possession agreement?
A walking possession agreement means that the goods that have been
seized now legally belong to the bailiff and can be removed at
any time. However, s/he will allow them to remain in your home
and you can continue to use them providing you keep your side
of the agreement, e.g. you make agreed payments.
In order for a walking possession order to be valid, a bailiff
should have gained peaceful entry to the property and seized the
goods. It is not enough for a bailiff to list items that they have
seen through a window and push a walking possession order through
the letterbox for you to sign and return. You should never sign
a walking possession order in these circumstances. There is a daily
charge for a walking possession order that you must pay, on top
of the original debt you owe if they are sold. Remember that goods
will be sold at public auction and typically will sell for about
10% of their original value. This means that if you owe £50,
a bailiff will probably try to seize goods to the value of at least £500.
A bailiff must only seize goods that belong to the person who
owes the money, although any goods in the house can be seized for
distress or rent. In practice, many bailiffs will attempt to seize
any goods of value at a house they visit - it will be up to the
individual to prove ownership afterwards. If you have receipts
showing someone else bought the goods then you should show the
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Are there any goods that the bailiff cannot seize?
Bailiffs (except bailiffs acting on behalf of the magistrate's
court - see below) cannot seize the following goods:
- tools, goods, vehicles and other items of equipment necessary
for use by you in your employment, business or vocation;
- clothing, bedding, furniture, household equipment and provisions
as are necessary for satisfying the basic domestic needs of you
and your family
Bailiffs acting on behalf of the magistrates' court cannot seize
the following goods:
- clothing, beds and bedding tools of the trade
- basic domestic needs of the family would normally include fridge,
cookers, freezers, but may not include video recorders, second
TV's, jewellery, washing machines, stereos or microwave cookers.
Can I hide goods?
It is not unlawful for you to remove goods from your house or hide
them before a bailiff visits unless the bailiff is distraining
for rent. Remember that a bailiff, having gained peaceful entry,
can return at any time and if s/he believes that goods have been
removed or hidden prior to their visit, this is likely to happen.
For what to do if a bailiff visit is imminent - see below.
What if the bailiff does seize goods that do not belong
If a bailiff seizes goods that are subject to a Hire Purchase agreement,
seek advice urgently. Goods on HP do not belong to you until you
make the final payment, but there may be circumstances in which
they can be seized.
If goods have been seized wrongfully, then the owner of the goods
can apply for them to be returned. You will need to get further
advice about this.
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Will I get advance notice of a bailiff visit and fees?
From 1 April 1998, local authorities must send you a letter giving
14 days notice of a proposed bailiff visit to collect council
tax. County court bailiffs must issue a warning notice allowing
7 days for you to pay.
Do I have to pay the bailiff's fees?
The fees that bailiffs can charge for recovering money vary. There
are fixed fees for bailiffs collecting council tax; for example,
from 1 April 1998 fees for the first visit by a bailiff are £20
and £15 for a second visit, where no levy or seizure is
All bailiff fees (with the exception of magistrates' court bailiffs)
can be looked at by the county court to see if they are reasonable
or excessive. This is known as 'detailed assessment'. If you think
that the bailiff's fees are excessive you should get further advice
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What should I do if a bailiff is about to visit my home?
Remember you do not have to let a bailiff into your house or flat.
If you make sure that all doors and windows are locked, the bailiff
will not be able to gain access to your home. If they cannot
get in, they cannot lawfully seize goods. A bailiff may call
a number of times to try and gain entry. Eventually they will
return the warrant to the court or local authority if they are
unable to gain entry, or you do not have enough goods to pay
off the debt and fees.
Secondly, get the matter out of the hands of the bailiff and back
to the county court, local authority or creditor. The next paragraph
tells you how to do this.
If the debt is an unpaid county court judgment you can apply to
the court to stop (''suspend'') the warrant and vary the instalments
you were ordered to pay by the court. You can apply to do this
on form N245, available from the court. The form asks for details
of your income and outgoings with a few personal details such as
whether you work. You will have to pay a fee at the court (currently £30),
unless you are getting income support, income-based jobseeker's
allowance or tax credits*. You may have to show proof that you
are receiving these benefits.
(*You must have a gross annual income of £14213 or less
and receive both working tax credit AND child tax credit, or working
tax credit with a 'disability element' or a 'severe disability
element'. Your tax credit award notice will contain this information)
The fee can also be waived if you are on a low income and payment
of the fee would involve undue financial hardship. Applications
for a fee reduction or waiver are dealt with entirely on an individual
basis according to circumstance and there are no precise guidelines
about when a fee should or should not be reduced or waived. In
either case you must complete Form Ex160 and send or take it to
the court with the N245.
Some county courts may refuse to suspend a warrant of execution
until a walking possession agreement has been signed. This goes
against guidance issued by the Lord Chancellors Department and
if it happens to you seek further advice.
If bailiffs are collecting unpaid council tax it is often difficult
to negotiate instalment payments with the bailiff or the local
authority until the warrant is returned or withdrawn from the bailiff.
However, you should try to negotiate instalment payments with the
local authority and encourage them to withdraw the warrant from
the bailiff. It is important to make clear that although you are
unwilling to let the bailiff in, you are willing to make instalment
payments at a rate that you can afford.
If you need help filling in forms or negotiating with creditors
or bailiffs, see the 'further help' section below.
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National Standards for Enforcement Agents
A review of bailiff law resulted in a Green Paper in July 2001,
Towards Effective Enforcement'. A White Paper and legislation
have however not followed, and expectations are now that the
may not do so for some time.
The national standard (NSEA) has however been put in to place,
taking up some points from the review of bailiff law.
The NSEA is endorsed by a range of central and local government
departments and the bailiffs' trade bodies, all of whose members
should comply with it.
Enforcement agents should:
- Carry out their duties in a professional, calm and dignified
manner. This includes dressing appropriately and acting with
discretion and fairness.
- They must not misrepresent their powers or abilities, or discriminate
on grounds of gender, sexual, orientation, age, ethnicity, race
- Produce identification and authorisation on request
- Communicate clearly and provide information (on charges etc)
- Have arrangements for translation services and provision of
information in large print, Braille etc
- Provide procedures for identifying and dealing fairly with
vulnerable debtors such as people who are elderly, disabled,
those who have been bereaved recently, lone parents, pregnant
women, unemployed people, people with language difficulties.
The conduct of levies
- 'Unlawful force' should not be used to enter any premises
- If the Police are called to deal with a breach of the peace,
their presence must be explained including that they are not
there to help with the levy
- If the only person present is or appears to be under 18, the
agent must depart, but may ask when the debtor will be home.
If the only persons at home are children under the age of 12,
the agent must simply leave.
- Bailiffs should avoid so far as is practicable avoid disclosing
the purpose of their visit to anyone who is not the debtor. Relevant
documents should be left in a sealed envelope addressed to her/him
- Visits should ideally only be made between 6am and 9pm (or
any time that the debtor is conducting business). Visits should
not take place on Sundays, Bank Holidays, Good Friday or Christmas
Day, unless legislation or a Court permits this. Respect for
other religions and cultures should be upheld, and visits avoided
on appropriate festivals and holidays.
- Goods that are clearly those of a child should not be seized
- Bailiffs should take all reasonable steps to satisfy themselves
that the value of goods seized is proportional to the debt and
- When goods are removed, receipts should be given to the debtor
- Debtors must be notified of fees on each visit and of the
fees that will be incurred if further action takes place
- Copies of the NSEA should be available from the offices of
the agencies, from the agents on request and if possible from
the creditors themselves
- There are no sanctions for non-compliance with NSEA but agents
are required to operate complaints and disciplinary procedures.
Further details www.lcd.gov.uk/enforcement/agents02.htm
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How can I complain about a bailiff?
Depending on the type of complaint you want to make, you can complain
to the person who instructed the bailiff, for example a local
authority, the county court (if the bailiff is certificated or
a county court bailiff) or a trade association. See below for
how to get help making a complaint.
Most private bailiffs will also belong to a trade association,
all of whom have complaints and grievance procedures you can use.
The main trade associations are the Certificated Bailiffs Association
(CBA) and the Association of Civil Enforcement Agencies (ACEA).
CBA can be contacted by writing to:
c/o Ridgefield House
14 John Dalton Street
ACEA can be contacted by writing to:
150 Regent Street
t: 0207 432 0366
f: 0207 432 0516
Always keep copies of letters and evidence you send.