On the 25th January, Justice Minister Helen Grant announced a proposed package of measures to ‘clean up the bailiff industry’, writes Kate Briscoe.
- Kate Briscoe founded the www.legalbeagles.info consumer website in 2007. It specialises in banking and finance disputes and gained a reputation for detailed analysis of major legal developments, such as the OFT test case on bank charges, the PPI Judicial Review. Kate is also a fee earner for Watsons Solicitors specialising in consumer and finance litigation.
This was in accordance with coalition promises and the headlines claimed the new rules anticipated to come into force in April 2014 would include:
‘Bailiffs will be banned from entering homes when only children are present and at night and new safeguards will prevent them from using force against people who owe money. They will also no longer have free reign to fix their own fees, as new set costs are brought in.’
But some of these ‘reforms’ are not really that new, they are merely legislating the existing status quo. The bailiff industry does not currently operate at night and does not enforce levies when only children are present. In the Ministry of Justice consultation response, the core issues identified that need genuine change and robust legislation are:
- More protection against aggressive bailiffs whilst retaining an effective regime
- A fair, transparent and sustainable costs regime that provides adequate remuneration; and
- A proportionate regulatory regime that is targeted where action is needed.
These changes will be made by enacting parts of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 and creating new laws through the Crime and Courts Bill, which is currently progressing through Parliament.
So what’s the true story behind these much-needed Ministry of Justice reforms? Dig a little deeper and you will discover some decency and depth. The most significant change is the introduction of a fixed fee structure. This reform alone could, at least address the most persistent complaints about exorbitant fees that we see on the bailiff forum area, if it is applied fairly and sensibly.
Confusing fee structures currently create a huge amount of complex work for voluntary advice groups. A tangle of antiquated legislation all but obscures the interpretation of current bailiff fees, making it very hard for a consumer to interpret fairness of charges.
Enforcement of different types of debt, criminal or civil have separate rules. This means the rules change if a bailiff is collecting a parking fine, council tax arrears or a TV licence fine. The new reforms would simplify all these and give the debtor an opportunity at ‘Compliance Stage’ to set up a payment plan without any need for a bailiff to visit at all.
The thinking behind this being that most people ‘sit up and take notice’ of a bailiff letter. Presently the first they know is a very loud knock at their front door and a clamp sitting proudly on the Corsa outside.
The simplification of the fee structure will remove much of the need for aggression on the doorstep. Indeed for many cases, a doorstep visit would not be a cost effective route for the bailiff company, and logically the source of most doorstep tension is the inexplicable huge fees added to the original debt.
However, an area that causes great concern in the advice sector but is not addressed at all in the reforms, is the issue of police conduct on attendance to bailiff incidents.
The police view bailiff incidents as a ‘civil matter’. Their attendance does not lead to a shiny statistic, to them it is dead, wasted time. So in our experience, police attending such incidents are biased towards the bailiffs to ensure a speedy resolution.
In a recent case, a bailiff attended a property without a warrant of entry. The householder called the police as the bailiff was being very aggressive and upon attendance, the police officer swiftly handcuffed the householder to allow the bailiff entry to the property to levy distress.
Given the Ministry of Justice has placed ‘More protection from aggressive bailiffs’ at the top of its wish list, why such apathy amongst the very people charged with protecting us when the public is subjected to an ‘aggressive bailiff’?
In another incident, a bailiff seriously assaulted the wife of a ‘debtor’ who had paid off his fine over a week earlier. Again, the police were called but they incorrectly stated that, ‘once the front door had been opened, the bailiff could force his way in, even if that resulted in injury’. The local court enforcement officer helpfully provided that gem of interpretation; which the police relied on in their decision not to pursue disciplinary action against the officer involved.
A bailiff can only force entry in very specific circumstances and certainly not in a manner likely to cause injury.
We receive hundreds of bailiff queries every year and the general attitude of the police is very disappointing. They are largely disinterested in enforcing the law and often overstate the attending bailiffs powers of entry, presumably to speed up their own rapid departure from fruitless policing.
Independent training in bailiff law for the police and courts staff must inevitably accompany these reforms, otherwise we will continue to see people falling victim to the bailiff aggression, willingly abetted by their local constabulary, in some misplaced sense of common purpose.
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award