Bailiffs are not being held to account when they break the rules because the complaints system is complicated and intimidating, according to new research from Citizens Advice.

Figures obtained by Citizens Advice from the Ministry of Justice show just 56 complaints were made through a court-based process introduced as part of the bailiff reforms in 2014. In the report – The Rules of Enforcement – released today, Citizens Advice also reveals 72% of people who experience a bailiff breaking the rules do not complain at all. Interviews with advisers and people who have sought help from Citizens Advice shows people do not complain because:

    • It is unclear how to make a complaint
    • The pressure of bailiff enforcement action puts people off complaining
    • There is a lack of faith in the process

Previous research from the national charity revealed bailiffs broke the rules 850,000 times in the past two years. The lack of an effective complaints system means bailiffs are not held to account.

The report is released on the same day MPs are set to debate bailiff regulation and receive a response from a justice minister. As part of the “Taking Control” group on bailiff reform, Citizens Advice is calling on the government to introduce a bailiff regulator and establish an independent complaints process.

Government reforms introduced in 2014, which included rules for bailiffs to obey, have not worked because they have not been properly enforced, the charity says. There has been a 24% rise in people coming to Citizens Advice with bailiff problems since 2014. The charity helped one person make a complaint after a bailiff aggressively pursued a parking fine that actually belonged to their son, who didn’t live at the home. The money was eventually refunded, but only after 18 months by the enforcement agency’s independent adjudicator.

In comparison, the Financial Conduct Authority, for example, requires firms to resolve all claims within 8 weeks.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said “Bailiffs are getting away with breaking rules designed to protect those who’re struggling. The complaints process is complicated and frustrating. People lack faith in a system where you’re required to complain to the bailiff’s firm in the first instance. Bad practice by bailiffs is widespread and causes stress, anxiety and further financial harm. The government has said it wants to end this for good and to do so, it must bring rule-breaking bailiffs into line by establishing an independent regulator.”

“Alongside this, the Ministry of Justice should introduce an independent complaints process. Its important complaints are reviewed independently of the bailiff industry and outside the court system.”

Responding to Citizens Advice claims that agents are breaking rules and people cannot complain, Russell Hamblin-Boone, Chief Executive of the Civil Enforcement Association (CIVEA), said “Once again, Citizens Advice has undermined an on-going government consultation with some poor quality research largely based on the views of 14 advisers and 15 clients. The facts are that the industry complaints process is fair and robust. It involves listening back to calls from customers, reviewing video footage and even interviewing agents. The local authority is often also consulted. After this highly detailed investigation, we frequently find that people are not complaining about the agent but about the debt.”

“A visit by an enforcement agent is always the last resort. To receive a visit, you must have ignored final demands, emails, phone calls and texts. Although complaint levels remain low, we have been developing a new, improved complaints process with a stronger element of independence and expertise, which will give further confidence to any who registers a complaint.”