Citizens Advice reports 38% rise in complaints as new laws aim to tackle rogue operators
The true scale of the problem posed by “lawless bailiffs” is revealed as shocking figures show a sharp rise in complaints about their behaviour since the start of the banking crisis.
Private bailiffs, often working for councils, have been found to have threatened the use of force and illicitly seized property, actions that have prompted the government to agree laws to crack down on rogue operators.
The worsening financial climate is being blamed for a rise in the number of people subjected to bailiff action. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux says there has been a 38% increase in complaints about private bailiffs over the past five years.
In 2012, Citizens Advice in England and Wales dealt with 56,300 problems with private bailiffs, up from 40,900 in 2008. Problems with private bailiffs made up 87% of its total of problems with bailiffs, which last year amounted to 63,000.
The association reports a surge in people seeking online help to deal with bailiffs – with 2.5 times more people getting advice than in the same month the previous year. It said it had collected evidence that showed bailiffs frequently overstating their powers and behaving aggressively to those in debt.
The association conducted a detailed analysis of more than 400 cases where private bailiffs were called in to collect debts and found that in many cases they had failed to abide by the law.
It found that two in five private bailiffs had threatened to use force to get in, while one in four had threatened to seize items that they are banned from removing, such as clothing or work tools. Almost a third had threatened to take goods that belonged to someone else, while 16% said that they would call the police to gain entry.
Citizens Advice warned that action by rogue bailiffs can have a devastating effect. Its analysis found that in almost four out of five cases bailiff action brought on stress and anxiety, and in a third of cases it exacerbated mental or physical health problems.
“It’s clear some bailiffs think they’re above the law – they’re not,” said Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice. “The nature of the industry is an open door for abuse of power. Bad practice is blamed on rogue individuals, but the only way to stop this is to hold bailiff firms accountable.”
Many private bailiffs work on behalf of local authorities. They have greater powers to reclaim property than debt collectors who work for private lenders, such as credit card companies.
A third of all bailiff problems dealt with by Citizens Advice concern council tax debt or unpaid parking charges. Citizens Advice, which claims that bailiff fees increase people’s debts by more than a third, expects to see a significant increase later this year as changes to council tax benefit come into force.
The figures come after the government announced laws, coming into force next year, to clean up the industry. These will restrict the property bailiffs can seize, and ban them from making late-night visits or entering homes when only children are present. They will also no longer be able to set their own fees.
“For too long bailiffs have gone unregulated, allowing a minority to give the industry a bad name,” said the justice minister, Helen Grant. “Too many people in debt have had the additional stress of aggressive bailiffs.”