Serious debt: what are your rights if the bailiffs call?
Getting into serious debt can be stressful enough, without the worry of having your goods repossessed. But knowing your rights should the bailiffs call is vital to dealing with the problem.
Amid the stresses and strains of suddenly finding yourself with debt problems, there is often one fear that overwhelms all others - the knock of the bailiff at the front door.
But what is a bailiff and what should you do if you find one on your doorstep? Our quick guide should answer any questions you may have about your rights if the bailiffs come calling.
Are you sure it's a bailiff?
First of all, it is important to know what a bailiff actually is and what they have the power to do. A bailiff is a person appointed by a court to visit your home and seize goods that you own, which will then be sold at auction as payment for unpaid debts.
The law around bailiffs dates back to medieval times and the rules can be difficult to navigate, but in general terms there are three different categories of bailiffs, depending on the type of debt that is being collected.
- County court bailiffs are civil servants, employed by the county courts, to collect debts that you have failed to pay through the courts - for example, through a County Court Judgement (CCJ).
- Certificated bailiffs are authorised by a county court judge to collect debts such as rent arrears, council tax arrears, parking fines, magistrate court fines, unpaid tax/VAT and Child Support Agency (CSA) debts.
- High Court enforcement officers or sheriff officers are responsible for enforcing debt judgements made by the High Court and certain large County Court Judgements.
Confused yet? Here's another tricky part - the person knocking on your door may not even be a bailiff at all, but a debt collector sent by your creditors to speak to you about repayment.
Unlike bailiffs, debt collectors have absolutely no power to collect debts or seize your property. Some of them may even give the impression of being bailiffs, but they have no legal standing whatsoever and so it is essential to ask for identification to ensure you know who is at the door and what their powers are.
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Don't let them in
"The golden rule is to know your rights," according to Delroy Corinaldi, head of external affairs at debt charity Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS).
"You do not have to allow a bailiff in to your home, and in the vast majority of circumstances they do not have the power to use force to gain entry to your property on their first visit. Entering through an open or unlocked window or door is, however, allowed - so it is important to make sure that everything is always locked."
If a bailiff does gain access to a property, they then have the legal right to use force to re-enter the home on subsequent visits. According to CCCS, this means that handling their first visit in the correct way is vital.
Corinaldi says: "After answering the door and asking to see identification, the best thing to do is to explain that you are making an offer of payment and to not let them in."
For many types of debt, it is possible to apply to have the bailiff's action suspended. Where a bailiff is acting on behalf of the county court, you can make an offer of payment by filling in a special 'N245' form, which can be downloaded from the Courts Service website. For bailiffs acting on behalf of the High Court, you can apply for what is known as a Stay of Execution, for which you will need to take further advice.
Whether you have just received a notice that a bailiff is being sent round, or the bailiff has already called, you might want to seek advice from a free debt charity - such as CCCS, National Debtline or your local Citizens Advice Bureau - as soon as possible.
Get free debt advice from charity the CCCS
Dealing with the wider problem
In addition to dealing with the bailiff in the short term, it is essential to address the wider debt problem that led to their visit.
CCCS stresses the importance of facing up to your debts early. Corinaldi says: "It can be extremely tempting to bury your head in the sand - particularly if your difficulties have presented themselves suddenly, and you haven't previously had any financial problems. However, the longer you leave it, the higher your debts will grow with interest and charges - and so taking action early is the key."
- The first step you can take is to sit down and work out a monthly budget sheet, with a complete list of all of your income and expenditure. This is a good way of making your financial position clear, and to see if you can reduce spending on any unnecessary items.
- It is also important to get a handle on how much debt you are in, by making a list of all your credit cards, personal loans, store cards and other debts - together with up-to-date balances and the interest rate you are paying on each.
- Make sure you tackle your priority debts first - these include mortgage payments, rent arrears, utilities and council tax. Not paying these bills can lead to severe consequences and it is essential that these are paid as a priority.
- Once you have listed and prioritised your debts, you can contact all of your creditors and explain that you are having difficulty keeping up with repayments. Offer to pay whatever monthly amount you can afford, and be prepared to show them your monthly budget if necessary.
If this is not possible, there are other possible debt solutions depending on your circumstances - such as entering an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA), applying for a Debt Relief Order (DRO) or, if all else fails, petitioning for bankruptcy.
Corinaldi says: "The most important thing to remember is that you don't need to do any of this on your own. By contacting a free debt charity you can get the best advice for your financial circumstances, as well as help and support through the entire process."
"No matter how much you owe or how serious your situation has become, there is always a solution - and you can always turn to debt charities such as CCCS, Citizens Advice and National Debtline for free advice and support."
CCCS can be contacted by freephone helpline (0800 138 1111), 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday, or our anonymous online counselling system, CCCS Debt Remedy.
In a perfect world we would not have to get in debt or borrow money,but if everybody stopped using credit cards, stopped signing HP agreements, call it what you like, its all getting into debt, then the high flyers who helped to get you in that situation in the first place would all be living in modest accomodation the same as I am, but at least I don't owe anybody anything. Also what a wonderful world the capitalist system is, when it can't function without collosal debt in every country around the world. Would of thought by now all the so called smart capitalists would of solved these problems, but then again if your getting massive bonuse, (bankers) for getting people into debt that they cannot get out of, their bonuses are already in their bank accounts and sod what happens to the rest of us. Don't know about those words to that song "and I said to myslef what a wonderful world" dog eat dog and thats why we have uncaring societies and unpararelled numbers of people in our prisons, its all part of the plan.
Please note that articles on MSN Money do not constitute regulated financial advice, which recommends a course of action based upon the specifics of your personal circumstances. The articles are intended to provide general personal financial information. We urge you to consult an Independent Financial Adviser (IFA) before making any important decisions about your finances. You can search for an IFA in your local area. Any statement regarding financial services products and tax liability is based on legislation and tax practices as at 6 April 2011, which is, of course, subject to change. The value of any tax benefits or reliefs depends upon the individual circumstances of the investor. When investment performance is mentioned you should remember that past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Where products have an underlying investment content, in many cases the value of the investment can fall as well as rise. For with-profit based investments, there is no guarantee as to the level of bonuses that will be declared, if any. Where mortgages or secured loans are explained do remember that your home is at risk if you do not keep up repayments on a mortgage or other loan secured on it. All mortgages are subject to underwriting, status and are not available to people under the age of 18.
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