Jen Durrant, Policy and Campaigns Officer
Through our frontline legal advice services and as a member of the Taking Control campaign, we have witnessed the deep psychological distress and financial hardship that bailiffs can inflict – particularly on people already struggling with low income, problem debt and disabilities.
Despite the introduction of weak reforms in 2014 the bailiff industry continues unchecked, with many enforcement agents using disproportionately threatening tactics and demanding wholly unaffordable payments. Incentives within the industry, and the fact that there is no official regulation to monitor them, means many bailiffs are actively encouraged to use these methods.
The devastating impacts of this behaviour are evidenced most tragically by the death of Jerome Rogers, a young man who suffered skyrocketing fees and intimidation from bailiffs for months – until he was eventually driven to suicide. His family are asking the Government to regulate the bailiff industry to make sure such a terrible tragedy never happens again.
In order to ensure that, several things need to change. The high charges that bailiffs impose mean even small debts quickly spiral out of control: in Jerome’s case, two £65 traffic fines shot up from £130 to over £1,000 in just a few months. Added to that, people are not being given a fair chance to repay. Unable to clear the debt by the two-week deadline, Jerome contacted both the bailiff company and the individual officer to set up an affordable repayment plan – but his request was refused. This is because the current system encourages debt collection agencies and individual bailiffs to use any means necessary to get immediate payment – even if that causes immense harm to the people they visit.
Worryingly, evidence from the Taking Control campaign shows that Jerome’s experience is not uncommon, with thousands of people suffering financial and emotional hardship at the hands of bailiffs. Many are pushed into the hands of dangerous loan sharks as a result.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Instead of being driven to suicide, people need to be given real opportunities and support to repay their debts. That means bailiffs must be required to set up realistic, affordable repayment plans with each person they contact. It means the government must introduce an independent regulator to ensure good practice. And it means local authorities must deliver thorough and effective debt support for their residents, instead of referring them to bailiffs.
None of this is impossible. Debt collection by banks is already regulated by the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority). Councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham have ended their use of bailiffs entirely. And our own work shows that with the right support, people can recover from problem debt.
So if proper regulation, appropriate repayment plans and effective support can be achieved in these instances, there is no reason why they cannot be applied throughout the bailiff industry. For that to happen, we need an honest recognition from Government that no one should have to suffer as Jerome did – and a real commitment to make sure that no one ever has to again.
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