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Bailiffs at the door

A shocking example of confusion and clerical error has led to an amendment to the Legal Advice Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which was debated in the House of Lords this week. Bailiffs at the door will now be able return control warrants to the courts if the facts demand it – whereas previously they were entitled to come back with a locksmith, even if you had paid the debt.

Up until now, bailiffs have been barred from returning the fines of vulnerable and impoverished defaulters to the courts for reconsideration. This situation arose after the High Court decision in R v Hereford and Worcester Magistrates’ Court ex parte MacRae in 1999. The court held that a distress warrant cannot be withdrawn once it has been issued and is in the hands of the bailiff.

At the request of Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K, the charity which empowers vulnerable debtors), supported by Citizens’ Advice Bureau and other NGOs in the advice sector, Baroness Lister and Lord Thomas of Gresford QC urged the government to allow the bailiffs to return cases when there has been a change of circumstances since the fine was imposed, so making the fine disproportionate, or if the defaulter was not in court when the case was heard, or if there has been a mistake.

The Government accepted the point and tabled their own amendment. This will require bailiffs to take account of the financial hardship of vulnerable people on the doorstep and make decisions to return the fines to the courts. Otherwise bailiffs would have ploughed on enforcing unmanageable repayments of fines and court costs plus their escalating fees, creating misery for impoverished fine defaulters. Bailiffs used to lose their fees if the case were returned. They will now collect flat rate administration fee for that part of the process after the current consultation is completed early next year. An improvement all round.

Talking to a machine
Z2K offered the following distressing case study, as described by Baroness Lister in the House of Lords (Hansard, 7 February 2012, c242).
A problem arose in a case dealt with by Z2K. A collection order was issued by Wycombe magistrates against a lone mother with three young children, threatening arrest, bailiffs, referral back to the court with the fine increased by 50% etc. She had failed to pay for her TV licence and then failed to pay the fine of £210 plus £60 costs levied in her absence by the magistrates. At the bottom of the collection order was written in capital letters: ‘ONCE ISSUED A DISTRESS WARRANT CANNOT BE WITHDRAWN AND YOUR MONEY OR YOUR GOODS MAY BE SEIZED BY BAILIFFS AT YOUR EXPENSE’.
In a panic, she borrowed £400 plus £260 interest from Provident. She then went to the court and paid the £270 she owed in an envelope into a machine, which did not give her a receipt. Later the court told her that she paid only £170 and it wanted remaining £100. She genuinely believed that she had paid and thought there must be a mistake by the court. Threatened by the bailiffs again, she reluctantly agreed to pay off the £100 at £5 a week, but no payments were received by the court, which then sent out the bailiffs. The bailiffs sent two letters and called twice, adding £150 to her fine.
She described the conversation as follows: ‘I tried to explain that I had already paid the fine he had to collect and that I shouldn’t be paying it again, let alone another £150 fee for a bailiff. He said no way I could pay weekly, he would give me two more weeks to pay it. I tried to explain that I am on Income Support and that there was no way I could pay him £250 in two weeks. He said that was not his problem and he would be at my house at 1pm on June 15th. He phoned on the 14th. I explained again to him that I didn’t have £250 and that I am on Income Support with three young children. He said: ‘Pay me the money on Friday or I will get a locksmith and break into your house and take your possessions’. He said it with quite an aggressive tone, which made me feel intimidated and quite scared. I then tried to contact Drakes [the bailiffs' firm], however all you get is a machine with options none of which are to talk to someone.’
In a panic, she borrowed £400 plus £260 interest from Provident. She then went to the court and paid the £270 she owed in an envelope into a machine, which did not give her a receipt. Later the court told her that she paid only £170 and it wanted remaining £100. She genuinely believed that she had paid and thought there must be a mistake by the court. Threatened by the bailiffs again, she reluctantly agreed to pay off the £100 at £5 a week, but no payments were received by the court, which then sent out the bailiffs. The bailiffs sent two letters and called twice, adding £150 to her fine.

Not their problem
he described the conversation as follows: ‘I tried to explain that I had already paid the fine he had to collect and that I shouldn’t be paying it again, let alone another £150 fee for a bailiff. He said no way I could pay weekly, he would give me two more weeks to pay it. I tried to explain that I am on Income Support and that there was no way I could pay him £250 in two weeks. He said that was not his problem and he would be at my house at 1pm on 15 June. He phoned on the 14th. I explained again to him that I didn’t have £250 and that I am on Income Support with three young children. He said pay me the money on Friday or I will get a locksmith and break into your house and take your possessions, he said it with quite an aggressive tone, which made me feel intimidated and quite scared. I then tried to contact Drakes [the bailiffs' firm], however all you get is a machine with options none of which are to talk to someone.’

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  • Anonymous

    How loading extras fees and debt onto someone who is unable to pay the principal , is going to help them settle debts is going to get the account settled is beyond crazy.

    Blood, stones and bull headed bullying lying cheating bailiffs. they are a travesty and belong in the dustbin of history

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