This is a record of day I spent with a bailiff company employed by the Ministry of Justice in May 2010. Although the bailiff’s in question were clearly on their best behavior and the experience of our clients demonstrate that this isn’t often the case it still provides a useful insight.
I met a manager at the company, who I will call Paul, for a coffee before we headed to their office. There I was informed that company were ‘absolutely petrified and had sent along the directors PA to ensure things run as smoothly as possible.’ I was shocked as I thought what exactly do they think will I do?
Paul informed me that they know what we charity people are like; all they ever received is criticism. I reassured them that all I wanted to do was go back to my office armed with better knowledge on how best to advise my vulnerable clients. I’m not sure that they were convinced, I explained I want a realistic understanding of how bailiffs operate, how they interact with ‘offenders’ as they like to call them and what their take is on the law relating to bailiffs powers.
We finally made it down to the office where we were met by the directors PA and a rather young looking man; no one quite clarified what his role was. As I turned around I came face to face with the biggest man I had ever seen he must have been at least 6 4” with an incredibly heavy build. His partner in crime was no exception; he was another very large man who was the designated driver for the day. My first impressions were that there is no way I would want to open my door to these men as they could crush me with one hand! Not that they are inclined to do so.
I was told that we would go out for the bailiff’s visits first and then come back for question time which they were not looking forward to at all. I got in the van fitted with number plate readers with the two bailiffs who turned out to be very softly spoken like gentle giants. Sitting in between I felt like a little ant compared to the other two and I’m not a tiny person by anyone’s standards.
My two bailiff friends turned out not to be just ordinary bailiffs, they held quite senior positions in the firm which led me to believe that they were specifically handpicked to escort me for the day. I was happy enough as I guess no matter who they had sent they are most likely to be on their best behaviour.
The bailiffs had with them a list of printed names; I am told they don’t normally get the names in that format it was only done for that day to make things run as smoothly as possible. I got the impression that they were desperate for the day to be a success on their part. They were not taking any chances; everything was in its place, everyone on their best behaviour.
We knocked on several doors but unfortunately not a single person answered, the bailiffs just wrote a note on letter headed paper informing the debtor of their visit and asking them to make contact as soon as possible.
Finally one lady answered the door; she seemed absolutely petrified when she came face to face with a man possibly four times her size, though she seemed slightly at ease when she saw me behind him smiling to put her at ease.
The gentle giant introduced himself and explained where he was from. He explained that he was looking for so and so and can she get them to come to the door. This lady appeared to have a good command of the English language however, she declared that she could not understand English nor could she speak it and she said it all in perfect English. The bailiff was very calm and very patient with her, explaining that he needed to ascertain the whereabouts of this particular person. After much persistence from the bailiff, it later turned out that the lady had a short term tenancy agreement and the previous tenant the man in question had left some time ago. He asked to see a tenancy agreement and some sort of identification. He seemed satisfied apologised to the lady for the inconvenience and thanked her for all her assistance.
I asked whether he found that frustrating, when people just pretend to be ignorant; pretend they don’t understand him, don’t open doors and when they do they don’t get the result they are hoping for?
He explained that like any job this one has its ups and its downs, it does get frustrating, and eventually you get really fed up with it. But there really is nothing you can do but just keep at it. Some days you can be knocking on doors all day and not a single person will be in. Other days an hour in and they manage to set up successful payment plans with almost all the debtors they have seen. The job varies greatly, they tend to start early, just because that is about the only time they are likely to catch debtors before they head off to do the school run and go to work etc.
The next house we knocked on refused to let the bailiffs in to the common area as the block of flats were secured and they could not get entry. He spoke to the lady via the intercom and asked for the debtor, she said she had never heard of him and did not wish to speak any further. She gave him the name of the landlord and told him in no uncertain terms that she will not provide him with any more information and he should just call the landlord. He left and explained that in those circumstances there’s really nothing they can do but to try the landlord and if that fails then they will try knocking again another day and another time.
The bailiffs only knock a maximum of three times and if all three visits are unsuccessful than they take the warrant back to the offices and discuss what the best course of action is. If they decide that they there is no way to get hold of the debtor than they may even decide to write that particular one off and take it off the systems. I am told they have to be careful about the amount of time they devote on one warrant. Knocking on doors and obtaining no response can be very time consuming, resources have to be used wisely.
A warrant is only live for 180 days and after that it goes back to the courts. The courts than decide what to do with it. It is up to the individual bailiff to decide what time they choose to enforce the warrant. Often they just work through the list of names in the order that it has been printed off.
I was curious to know what information they receive about the debtor before they begin knocking on the doors. Unsurprisingly the only information they receive is the name, address, offence and the amount owed. They have no other information about the debtor; what is alarming is that they are not aware whether the debtor falls into the vulnerable category. I tried to ascertain how they felt about that, I got the distinct impression that they were not that bothered. All they were there to do was collect money. Their primary and possibly only concern is to ensure some sort of payment is received towards the debt.
I was told by the directors PA that the majority of the cases that get referred back to the offices are people who have mental health problems. They hadn’t really come across many other vulnerability issues. Bailiffs just aren’t trained in dealing with people who exhibit signs of mental illness, its beyond their scope they must refer those cases back.
I was told by Paul that he was the person that the bailiffs would have to go through before using any force. It is apparently a very high risk strategy, which involves a lot of follow up work afterwards. He says he would never authorise the use of force unless the bailiffs had exhausted every other avenue and they were absolutely sure that the person was not vulnerable in any way shape or form. He was not keen to give authorisation for the use of force; a lot of checks have to be in place. They have to make sure that a locksmith is there, the presence of police might also be needed. In the 5 years that Paul had been employed Manager he had given authority to use force twice only.
Paul mentioned that the warrant is a means of bringing someone back to court; however, they don’t refer the debtor back to court unless they specifically request it.
They do get lots of complaints about bailiffs, but said that they usually aren’t about the bailiff’s behaviour or conduct but rather the actual fact that someone dare knock on their door. More often than not the complaints are about the fees, people don’t believe they should pay the exorbitant fines. They also complain that the bailiffs are generally unhelpful but they don’t realise that a lot of the issues people want the bailiffs to deal with they can’t. Every case is and has to be investigated thoroughly and that’s done at the head offices.
If a warrant is referred back to them due to vulnerability then they hold on to it and halt all proceedings and begin attempting to obtain evidence of vulnerability. The warrant is then returned back to the courts and the courts decide what to do with it.