“Enforcement officer” is now the official name for bailiffs since revised regulations in 2014, although the term “bailiff” is still more commonly used. To avoid confusion, the term “bailiff” is used here.

Instructing a bailiff is one method of civil debt enforcement. Different types of bailiffs are used to collect different types of debt on behalf of creditors (including local authorities, government departments and private individuals seeking to enforce a county court judgement). Some bailiffs are officers of the court, others are self-employed, some are employees of a private debt collection company. The rules governing the regulation of bailiffs were completely overhauled on 6 April 2014. For more information about these changes, see the Library’s briefing paper on Enforcement Officers (formerly known as bailiffs).

It is important to stress that if bailiffs have already sent a letter/notification of their intention to visit the debtor’s home, the debtor should seek proper legal advice as a matter of urgency.

What is a bailiff?

In a nutshell, a bailiff is someone authorised to collect a debt on behalf of a creditor (someone who is legally owed money). They may do this by asking for immediate payment of the debt, or by “taking control” of the debtor’s goods and selling those at auction to raise the money needed to repay the debt. The different types of bailiffs include: Certified Enforcement Officers, High Court Enforcement Officers, County Court Bailiffs, and Civilian Enforcement Officers. Detailed information on each type of bailiff is provided in the Library’s briefing paper.

Certificated Enforcement Agents are the most common type of bailiffs. They are used to take control of goods and act on a warrant issued by the County Court for debts such as: rent arrears; council tax arrears; parking fines; and child support agency arrears. They are not officers of the court, but they are certified by the court. The certification process enables the court to exercise a degree of control over the standards of competence and conduct of these enforcement agents.

How do you know it is a certificated bailiff and not a debt collector?

Bailiffs must on request show the debtor evidence of their identity and their authority to enter a property. Legally, they must also have given the debtor an enforcement notice, 7 days before they visit. Debtors can also check the Register of Certificated Bailiffs if they are unsure about whether a bailiff is certificated or not.

In contrast, private sector debt collectors are not bailiffs, and do not have the same legal power. For example, they are not allowed to take control of goods. A debt collector must not pretend to be a bailiff.

When can bailiffs enter a property?

The statutory position is that bailiffs are required to give seven days’ notice before they first visit a debtor’s property. This is called an enforcement notice.

A debtor does not have to let bailiffs into their home where they knock on the door. Bailiffs are not allowed to push past an individual to gain entry or jam their foot into a door to prevent it being shut. However, bailiffs are permitted to enter an individual’s home without using force by using any usual means of entry.  This can include an unlocked door, gate, or attached garage.

It is important to note that if a bailiff has previously entered the debtor’s home to take control of goods, they have a legal right to re-enter the property, as long as the debtor has been notified about the intention to do so. There are various reasons why a bailiff will re-enter the debtor’s property, including where they believe the debtor has broken the terms of a Controlled Goods Agreement.

A Controlled Goods Agreement is where goods are technically seized, and the debtor is given the opportunity to pay the debt within a specified time to retain the goods. If the debtor does not do so, the goods may be sold by the bailiff in public auction and the money realised is passed onto the creditor.

Are there any time restrictions? 

Bailiffs can legally visit a debtor’s home or business premises on any day of the week, but enforcement can only happen between 6 am and 9 pm (the main exception to this is if the bailiff has a court order saying they can enter outside these hours).

Who can let a bailiff in?

Anyone over the age of 16 can let a bailiff into the property. The bailiff must withdraw without making enquiries if the only person present is a child under 12 years old. If the only person present is a child or is a vulnerable person, the bailiff cannot take control of goods.

Can bailiffs force entry?

In general, no, unless a court has granted permission, or it is for a particular type of debt.

Bailiffs can apply to the court for permission to use “reasonable force” to gain access. The bailiffs are required to give the court information on the likely means of entry and the amount of force required, as well as how the premises will be secured afterwards.

In some limited cases, bailiffs do not need to apply to a court for permission. If bailiffs are collecting for a Magistrates Court fine in respect of a criminal conviction, they are permitted to use force to break into a debtor’s property. County Court bailiffs and High Court enforcement officers are legally allowed to force entry to trade or business premises (but not residential homes) to chase unpaid County Court judgements or High Court judgements. In addition, bailiffs employed by HMRC can force entry if the debt is unpaid tax.

What belongings can a bailiff take?

If bailiffs cannot recover the full payment of debt, and negotiation of a payment plan is not an option, they can take control of goods (i.e. recover the money owed by seizing a debtor’s belongings and selling them at a public auction). However, bailiffs are not allowed to seize certain essential items, such as:

  • Items of equipment necessary for work, study or education, including tools, books and computers up to a certain value;
  • Household equipment for basic domestic needs, including cookers, fridges, washing machines, clothes, dining tables and beds;
  • Anything belonging to a child, such as toys;
  • Pets;
  • Food;
  • Items that are not owned by the debtor.

Can bailiffs take goods from outside of the home?

Yes. Bailiffs can also take a debtor’s vehicle if it is parked outside a debtor’s home, place of trade or business, or on a public highway. Bailiffs are expected to check that the vehicle does belong to the debtor. 

Bailiffs can clamp a vehicle they are intending to seize. However, they must leave a “Warning of Immobilisation” notice giving the date, time and reason why the vehicle has been clamped (typically failure to pay a debt), a 24-hour contact number, and a reference number. 

Bailiffs cannot usually take a vehicle if it is parked on private land, although they could apply to the court for a warrant to do so. Bailiffs should not seize a vehicle displaying a valid disabled person’s badge or a vehicle used for emergency service purposes.

Can bailiffs take other people’s belongings?

Bailiffs can only seize goods belonging to the debtor. The onus is on the debtor to prove that the items found in his/her home belong to someone else. Proof of ownership might include: hire purchase agreements, shop receipts or bank statements.

If a bailiff seizes goods belonging to a third party, the debtor or the third party can complain to the bailiff’s company and ask for the belongings to be returned. There is a clear complaint process to follow, which is available online on the  Justice section of GOV.UK.

However, bailiffs can take jointly-owned belongings, provided they are not exempted items.

Are vulnerable people protected?

Bailiffs cannot take control of belongings if the only person present at the debtor’s property is a child or vulnerable person.

Under the National Standards on Enforcement, bailiffs are expected to protect vulnerable debtors and ensure appropriate discretion is used, including communicating directly about a vulnerable debtor with the creditor if there is cause for concern. A debtor is defined as vulnerable if: “[…] for reasons of age, health or disability they are unable to safeguard their personal welfare or the personal welfare of other members of the household”.

Bailiffs cannot recover fees for the enforcement stage, and any related disbursements, unless a vulnerable debtor has been given adequate opportunity to get assistance and advice.

What fees can bailiffs charge?

Since 6 April 2014, bailiff charges have been standardised. Full information is contained in the Taking Control of Goods (Fees) Regulations 2014.

Bailiffs can also charge disbursements if they incur other costs when collecting debts. For instance, this might include the cost of storing goods, the cost of hiring a locksmith if reasonable force is granted, any court fees, auction house costs and any other exceptional costs. The Citizens Advice website has information on bailiff’s fees.

What is the complaint process for bailiffs?

The method of making a complaint would generally depend upon the type of bailiff encountered. There is a general guide on GOV.UK: How to complain about a bailiff and more information in the Library briefing paper on bailiffs.

Where to get help

A person in financial difficulty should seek proper financial advice. If bailiffs have notified them of their intention to visit their home, the debtor should seek this advice as a matter of urgency.

  • Citizens Advice – The Citizens Advice online advice guide has detailed information about bailiffs and what they can and cannot do when collecting debts. Local Citizens Advice Bureaus (CAB) can also give face-to-face advice. The CAB website contains a search tool to help people find their nearest CAB.
  • National Debtline – Free and confidential advice is available from the National Debtline on 0808 808 4000. This debt charity also offers an online web chat.
  • StepChange, a debt advice charity, offers a free helpline for advice on debt management and bailiffs: 0800 138 1111. It also offers an online web chat.
  • Money Advice Service (MAS) provides free debt advice 24 hours a day via its website and five days a week by telephone on 0800 138 7777 (calls are free).