Rule-breaking bailiffs are causing people increased stress, anxiety and financial hardship, according to new research published today by Citizens Advice and StepChange. The charities are calling for the government to step in and regulate the industry to prevent more people suffering at the hands of debt collectors who flout the rules.

New figures reveal that one third (850,000) of the 2.2 million people contacted by a bailiff in the last two years experienced them pushing the limits of the law – such as by forcing entry into a home or removing goods needed for work. This works out as one person every minute being forced to deal with a rule-breaking bailiff.

Citizens Advice broke down the impact this has on people’s mental health and financial position. It found of those who had a negative experience with a bailiff:

  • 7 in 10 reported increased stress and anxiety
  • 1 in 2 experienced knock-on effects on their finances, including further debt due to enforcement fees
  • The findings suggest the government reforms introduced in 2014 to protect people from unfair practices are not working. Since then, Citizens Advice has reported a 24% rise in bailiff problems, and it remains one of the most common debt issues it helps people with.
  • The rules bailiffs are breaking

The national polling carried out by YouGov reveals when people were affected by – or witnessed – a bailiff breaking the rules:

  • 1 in 5 (18%) witnessed unsympathetic treatment towards people with an illness/disability
  • 1 in 6 (17%) had a break in threatened (when bailiffs don’t have legal powers to do this)
  • 1 in 10 (11%) had goods needed for their work removed, for example tools or a vehicle
  • 1 in 16 (6%) had entry forced into their home.

Citizens Advice analysed these figures and is also concerned bailiffs demonstrate poor practice by refusing to accept reasonable offers of payment when the debt is unable to be paid in full. It helped people with nearly 17,000 issues associated with a refusal to accept payment offers last year.

Citizens Advice estimates households have a total of £19 billion of arrears on bills such as council tax and utilities. Since 2011, these debt issues have overtaken the number of consumer credit issues (e.g. loans and credit cards) that people are seeking the charity’s help with.

The impact of bailiff use has also been highlighted this year by MPs on the Treasury Select Committee, who labelled government and local authorities “worst in class” for debt collection. In September, the National Audit Office said there was evidence that aggressive enforcement action is ineffective, and can be harmful in situations where the debtor is struggling to pay.

Citizens Advice, StepChange and the other 9 organisations that make up the ‘Taking Control’ group are calling for an independent body to be introduced to enforce high standards in the bailiff industry. Through the Ministry of Justice’s upcoming consultation on the enforcement industry, the group wants to see an independent bailiff regulator established.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said “Too often bailiffs, and the firms they work for, are a law unto themselves. This is inflicting widespread harm on people and their families and it has to stop. The 2014 reforms were well-intentioned but sadly have had little effect on improving the behaviour of some bailiffs. Faced with the evidence we’ve put in front of them, the Ministry of Justice has no other option but to establish an independent bailiff regulator.”

Phil Andrew, StepChange Debt Charity Chief Executive, said “The fact is that all the main debt advice charities are continuing to see too many cases where bailiffs are breaking the rules. This is completely unacceptable, especially as the people on the receiving end are often distressed, vulnerable and unempowered. Across the debt advice sector, we are united in the view that it’s now time for regulation to be more robust, and for the rules to be properly enforced. Even some bailiff firms seem to be realising that the days of informal regulation need to end.”

In response to Citizens Advice call for bailiff regulation The Civil Enforcement Association’s (CIVEA) Chief Executive Russell Hamblin-Boone said “This report is heavily based on the views of just 277 people who have had contact with bailiffs in the past two years. It is worrying that debt advisers consider it acceptable to exaggerate figures when they cannot get robust data. It is of great concern that Citizens Advice fails to make a distinction between laws that are broken and laws that people simply don’t like. For example, in the report, it is assumed that a threat to force entry to a property or to remove goods required for work purposes is breaking the regulations. That is simply incorrect and depends on the circumstances. It is shocking that agents are being accused of acting illegally based on such flimsy evidence.”

“A visit by an enforcement agent is always the last resort. In order to receive a visit, you must have ignored final demands, emails, phone calls and texts. Agents are highly trained and must follow a process set out in detailed regulations to ensure that they collect unpaid council tax and court fines fairly. Of course, agents need to be assertive when chasing down people who refuse to pay their council tax or court fines. But if there is any genuine evidence that agents are acting illegally then we will investigate and take the necessary action. So, if we are to continue working together to drive up industry standards, we must avoid an emotionally-charged debate and instead focus on robust facts and strong evidence.”