Of all of the measures the council can take to force you to pay your council tax arrears, the one guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of most people would be bailiffs.
Having someone enter your property and remove possessions to sell at auction to pay your debt is frightening and embarrassing.
Bailiffs can look very official and behave aggressively to get what they want, yet you may not realise that they do have the powers you think they do.
In fact, their powers under certain circumstances are quite limited. This is a brief guide to dealing with bailiffs over council tax arrears.
Why Are They On Your Doorstep?
If you have fallen into arrears with your council tax and cannot make payments to clear those arrears, the council will apply to your local magistrates’ court for a liability order. Employing bailiffs is one of the options under the liability order that the council can choose to obtain payment from you.
What Do They Want?
In a word money. Even at this stage you can offer to pay what you owe so they do not take your possessions and if you can do this, it is the best course of action to ensure the situation doesn’t escalate.
Make an offer of what you can afford to pay, although a better way of doing it is to make payments directly to the council and write to the bailiffs letting them know this is what you intend to do. It is harder to get bailiffs to agree to take money once they have gained access to your home.
If you do make any payments to the bailiffs, make sure you get a receipt.
Do You Have To Let Them In?
Bailiffs have no automatic right to enter a property if they have not been in before and you do not answer your door. It is illegal for them to break in, and they cannot get the police to help them. However if you open the door they can push past you or even get in through unlocked windows and doors.
If you must speak to them, do so out of an upstairs window and make sure you lock it afterwards. Don’t fall for any requests for quiet chats, a glass of water or to use your toilet.
If they have been in before, they have a right to enter again but only in connection with this specific council tax debt as stipulated on the court’s liability order.
They are not allowed to come in and take goods to sort out another debt they have been employed to collect upon, even if it still relates to council tax, if it is the subject of a different liability order.
They have to go right back to the beginning of the process and start again to gain access with the different court order.
Be Careful Of What You Store In Outhouses
Even though it is illegal, bailiffs have been known to get into sheds, greenhouses, garages and outside offices to take what they can, so it is wise to keep any valuable items you need stored inside the house or elsewhere off the property.
This includes cars, motorbikes and other vehicles, as a bailiff may have the authority to take your vehicle/s.
They Got Into The House. Now What?
If you decided to let them in or they got in, they will look for things to take that can be sold at auction, however the list of what they can and cannot take is not clear cut.
They cannot take anything that does not belong to you, although you may have to prove this by receipt or by a sworn statement from the owner of the goods, and according to the regulations they are not allowed to take:
- Such tools, books, vehicles and other items of equipment as are necessary for use personally in employment, business or vocation”
- Such clothing, bedding, furniture, household equipment and provisions as are necessary for satisfying basic domestic needs of the person and family”
A bailiff should only take enough goods that will generate the sum required to clear the debt at auction and no more, and they should provide you with a clear list of items they are taking. Generally, it is considered pretty low for a bailiff to take something clearly belonging to or used by a child. Most will not want to be seen to do that.
For obvious reasons, they cannot take anything that is hired or rented.
What paperwork do they have to have with them?
First of all, a bailiff must have written council authorisation for them to call on you. If they do not have it, do not talk to them as they may not be properly ‘certificated’ bailiffs.
Usually the council will have obtained a liability order through the magistrates court given them permission to take action to recover what you owe, and employing bailiffs is one of those actions.
Even if you receive a letter from the council warning you that a bailiff may call, still do not deal with them if they do not have the proper paperwork.
Second, the bailiffs should leave you with a copy of the enforcement regulations, which stipulate what they can and cannot do within their powers.
Third, they should leave you with any agreement you have signed, which may contain a list of goods they may take on their next visit if you do not stick to your agreement. By the way, it is illegal to hide these goods if they are listed on a ‘walking possession’ agreement.
Finally, they should leave you with details of the charges they make each time they visit. They can only charge you for two visits if you refuse to let them in, and then the bailiffs must return the contract to the council.