Bailiff rights: Debt collectors or bullies?

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Naomi Caine

Naomi CaineThe phone rang one Saturday morning and the call ruined my day, if not my weekend. It was a firm of bailiffs chasing an unpaid parking fine – in a less than civil manner. It left me wondering what bailiff rights are…

When I received the call, I had no knowledge of the parking ticket and had received no reminder or warning letters – just the call.

Now, I don’t expect a bailiff to be my new best friend, but the woman on the end of the line was aggressive and bullying. She would not engage in conversation and would not give more than the minimum information. I was told to pay the fine, or expect a visit from one of their agents.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I was frightened and confused. The firm’s website boasts of its high collection rate, which is hardly surprising if its use of scare tactics is widespread.

I made several calls to the bailiff that dreadful day and eventually squeezed out enough details to unravel the mystery – it’s a long story involving a change of address and the loan of my car to a friend. The fine is now paid, but the memory lingers.

So I decided to do some digging on bailiff rights, and I have discovered that the world of bailiffs is murky indeed. For a start, the laws are confusing. For example, bailiffs have different powers than debt collectors – but who knows the difference?

The rules are also different depending on the type of debt. So, a bailiff can break into your home to collect unpaid income tax, but not to chase a parking fine. Bailiffs can also charge for their visit, thereby increasing the amount you owe.

It’s a mess – and the consumer is almost powerless. The Ministry of Justice is consulting on bailiff reform, so let’s hope it takes swift action.

The regulations should undoubtedly be simplified. But, more important, bailiffs should be obliged to explain their powers to the consumer, including any charges, payment options and rights of appeal.

Bailiffs are chasing debts, not criminals. But I would rather deal with the police than a firm of bailiffs. Surely that can’t be right.

Naomi Caine was editor of The Sunday Times Money section for six years before she moved out of London to bring up a young family. She now juggles two children with a freelance career, and has written for a variety of publications, including MSN, Yahoo, The Times, The Sunday Times, Which? Money, Money Week and The Sunday Herald.