Thanks to the hardwork of our Chairman, Rev Paul Nicolson, an important change to the LAPSO Bill has been achieved that will help vulnerable debtors when persued by bailiffs. He explains:
Z2K proposed an amendment to the Legal Advice, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LAPSO) which was table by Baroness Lister supported by Lord Thomas QC. It was supported by CAB, AdviceUK, Money Advice Trust and other NGOs. It was intended to allow bailiffs to return the disproportionate fines of vulnerable and impoverished defaulters from their doorstep to court for the Magistrates Court to reconsider and to withdraw the bailiffs warrants; also to return fines if there has been a mistake, when there was a change of circumstances since the fine was set or if the defaulter was not in court. It was also intended to reinforce the guidance about vulnerable situations Page 9 of the National Standards for Enforcement Agents. http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/courts/bailiffs-enforcement-officers/national-standards-enforcement-agents.pdf
At a meeting with ministers the government accepted the point. The relevant government amendment was passed by Peers on Tuesday 20th . The amendment is long and available on the Parliamentary website. There are important clarifications by the government recorded in Hansard which by can be taken into account by the courts should they need clarification as to the intentions of the law. I have highlighted them in the relevant parts of the Hansard record of the debate shown below.
With best wishes,
Baroness Northover for the Government
“It is clear that the government amendment allows for the withdrawal of a warrant where there is a mistake in the decision to issue the warrant in the first place. The amendment covers the case where an offender is not in court when the warrant is issued, which results in the court not having the full information before it. This, in effect, amounts to a mistake. I hope that that also helps to reassure my noble friend Lord Thomas. If there has been a change of circumstances that, had it been known to the court, would have had an impact on the decision to issue a warrant, it is open to the debtor to argue that the warrant had been issued by mistake.
The noble Baroness also raised the question of bailiffs dealing with debtors who find themselves in hardship or appear to be vulnerable. It is important that we strike the right balance between protecting the vulnerable—she is right about that—and ensuring that fines, where appropriate, are paid. Noble Lords will have seen recent criticisms of fine payment rates. The fine is by far the most used sentence of the criminal courts.
In practice, however, when bailiffs come across hardship as defined in the guidance they should not execute the warrant and return it to the court. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, I must say that we would welcome any further information on this matter and on the effectiveness, which she has queried, of the guidance. It is very important that that is monitored. The Government do not think that it would be appropriate for a bailiff simply to withdraw a warrant in regard to a fine issued by a court. This could undermine the decision made by the court, which is why such a power is not included in the amendment, although I realise that that will disappoint the noble Baroness. If, however, the fine was imposed because the full facts were not made clear to the court, or they had changed, the provision in the Bill could apply.
In the case of changed circumstances since the fine was imposed, the debtor can contact the court at any time to speak to a fines officer to have the matter reviewed. The Government would encourage any debtor to contact the fines officer or court about a change of circumstance, which is clearly a better approach than waiting until a bailiff seeks to execute a warrant, but it is important that we separate the two parts in that respect.
As I said in Committee, the Government think it is important that bailiffs are dealt with via effective guidance, national standards and contractual obligations. As the noble Baroness knows, the Government are consulting on the operation of bailiffs, and we will carefully consider responses to that consultation. I hope that the noble Baroness and the organisations with which she is associated will feed into that consultation.