In January 2016 Jerome Rodger’s was visited by a bailiff. Jerome worked as a motorbike courier and had incurred two £65 fines, one for driving in a bus lane one minute for before he was allowed to do so and one for an illegal U-turn. By the time the bailiff was on his door step Jerome’s two small fines had ballooned to £1,019 in debt as a result of court and bailiff fees.
Jerome only earned between £38 and £89 a week and had struggled to find the money to pay his debt. When the bailiff arrived on his door step he tried to take out a Pay Day loan and managed to borrow £500 from his mother’s partner to pay towards the debt. But the bailiff company were not satisfied and when Jerome was unable to make further payments they visited him again and clamped his motorbike, thus removing his only means of earning a living.
Faced with this vicious cycle of debt and seeing no way out Jerome took his own life later that day. As Michael Strong, a family friend, told the coroner:
“I believe he [killed himself] because he wanted to have no more debt.”
The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide but although she expressed some concern at the bailiff’s collection practices she found they had acted ‘reasonably and professionally’. If a bailiff acting ‘reasonably and professionally’ can lead to such a tragic outcome it demonstrates something fundamentally wrong with the system itself.
The fact is that Jerome did not earn enough to pay back his debt as quickly as the bailiffs were demanding. A sensible response would have been to asses Jerome’s income and expenses and ascertain how much he could afford to pay and on that basis agree a sustainable repayment plan. Indeed Jerome’s mother Tracey told Radio 5 Live in an interview that Jerome had rung the bailiff company when he first received a notice to try and agree a repayment plan but they had insisted on visiting the property. This isn’t unusual – a survey for our joint Taking Control report found that 24% tried to arrange repayment over the phone but found the bailiff insisted on visiting anyway
This is because the bailiff fee structure incentivises such practice. As soon as a bailiff makes a visit they can add £235 in fees to the debt. Similarly clamping Jerome’s bike meant the bailiff could charge another £110 in fees. So instead of trying to help Jerome repay his debt the bailiffs removed his only source of income just so they could earn more in fees.
The bailiff regulations actually prohibit the seizure of ‘tools of the trade’ (i.e. goods necessary for a debtors work, like Jerome’s bike) if they are worth less than £1,350. In this case the bailiff firm claim they valued the motorbike at £1,500 – £2,000, but it turns out their valuation database isn’t actually able to value motorbikes. In contrast Honda, the bike’s manufacturer, say it was worth £400. So the likelihood is the bailiffs were in breach of the regulations when they clamped the bike.
Jerome had no history of mental health problems prior to this but there is strong evidence linking being in debt to the development of mental health problems. This is a clear case as any that although a debtor might not appear vulnerable the very act of being pursued by a bailiff while in debt can make them vulnerable. A bailiff sensitive to the vulnerabilities caused by debt should have referred Jerome to free debt advice and support. If they’d done so there’s every possibility Jerome would still be alive today.
The problem is that there is currently no authority overseeing bailiff actions to ensure they follow the regulations. Without such a body some bailiffs clearly think they can get away with doing what they want. In Taking Control: the need for fundamental bailiff reform we came together with 6 other charities to make the case for an independent regulator and an accessible complaints procedure. The case for such reforms is now stronger than ever before.