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Bailiffs exacerbate debts with fees for phantom visits

Citizens Advice

Bailiffs threaten to use force to get into people’s homes in 3 in 5 cases of council tax debt, finds a new survey from Citizens Advice.

At the same time some councils are unaware about the actions of the bailiffs they employ, meaning they are getting away with aggressive behaviour, and some authorities are adding up to £126 onto people’s debts.

Damning new evidence [Adobe Acrobat Document 160 KB] from Citizens Advice highlights that bailiffs are still frightening people in debt by overstating their powers and charging fees for visits they don’t make.

A Citizens Advice online survey, which ran between 10 July and 10 December 2013, asked people about their experience of bailiffs. Of the 500 people who had bailiffs chasing them for council tax debts:

38% were charged fees for visits bailiffs never made;
40% were threatened with removal of items that did not belong to them;
1 in 5 received frequent or aggressive phone calls from the bailiff;
1 in 10 were bombarded with text messages;
13% of people said bailiffs contacted their friends, family or neighbours about their debt;
8% had been approached in the street or at work by bailiffs.
Between December 2012 and November 2013, 16,905 people reported a problem to CAB about bailiffs enforcing council tax debt.

As part of the online survey Citizens Advice asked people to provide three words to sum up their experiences of bailiffs, the top five were: scared, bullied, intimidated, threatened and frightened.

New data, collected by the national charity, from 222 local authorities in response to a Freedom of Information request carried out between March and September 2013, shows a quarter of councils do not have any data on complaints about bailiffs.

Debts that are collected by bailiffs are often increased through bailiff fees. When councils pass debts to a bailiff they must first obtain a liability order from court, with many authorities charging people for the liability order.

Citizens Advice discovered a huge variation in the costs councils add to people’s council tax debts for liability orders. Over two thirds of councils charged more than £50 for a liability order, with 29% adding over £80 to people’s debts.

One in ten authorities charged less than £10, with some adding minimal costs of £3. Worryingly, some authorities are guilty of charging £126 per liability order. One of the authorities charging top-end fees had obtained more than 11,000 liability orders - adding on £1.4 million to people's debts, even before any bailiff charges.

The speed at which some councils call in the bailiffs is also cause for concern. A CAB in the South of England reported that a council had passed council tax arrears of just £21 to bailiffs. Costs for the liability order and bailiff fees hiked the debt up by almost 12 times the original amount to £251.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy said:

“Some bailiffs are utterly relentless and use aggressive and threatening behaviour to intimidate people in debt. Despite people barely having a penny to their name bailiffs keep on hounding them for money they just don’t have, even when they’ve arranged a repayment plan with the council. CABs are seeing people who are at their wits end because bailiffs are threatening and harassing them in the street.

“Bailiff firms must treat people fairly and make sure their actions aren’t driving people deeper into unmanageable debt, to make sure this happens councils need to have stringent checks and balances in place. The Government should also look at bringing in a licensing system which means firms who employ badly behaved bailiffs are at risk of losing their licence.

“The year of 2014 is billed as ‘the cost of living fight’ with politicians expected to lay out how they will tackle the crisis. Local councils also need to think about what they can do to help. Adding on excessive court costs, and bringing in the bailiffs early, flies in the face of supporting people who are finding it difficult to cope with rising living costs. Instead councils need to identify payment problems early and point those people towards free debt advice as well as monitoring the performance of bailiffs by collecting and analysing complaints. The use of bailiffs should be an absolute last resort.”

In August 2013 a Citizens Advice analysis of its clients with bailiff problems revealed that parents are more likely to have bailiffs knocking at the door chasing debts than any other household. Half of people who get help about bailiffs from a CAB are families with dependent children and 1 in 5 are working parents.

Citizens Advice is calling on councils to abide by the charity’s good practice protocol on council tax debts which includes:

Establishing a proper complaints process.
Promoting help that’s available to those who are struggling.
Offering options for different payment date for council tax payers so they can budget
more effectively.


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