If you are dealing with bailiffs for unpaid debts, including council tax arrears, you might be wondering if they need a court order and if they can force their way into your home?
We answer these common questions and other FAQs to do with court orders and bailiffs, right here.
Know your rights when facing high enforcement officers at your house by reading this guide!
What is a county court order?
A county court order is an instruction/approval by a local county court judge for one party to take action against another. In the debt industry, the court order is typically for the debtor to repay a creditor. It’s a last resort process when other debt recovery methods have not borne fruit.
You may be able to dispute or complain about a court judgment if you think the wrong decision was made.
In the case of council tax debts, the council will apply for a liability order.
When the council applies for legal powers to collect the debt – maybe through bailiffs – they usually add their legal fees.
If you fail to pay what you owe after a liability order, the council could take enforcement action, including employing high court enforcement officers to visit your house and collect a debt.
If you do not have the money to repay, they could take goods instead, such as a car you own, a TV or other valuables.
But before they take these sorts of measures, they are likely to make an information request.
The information request can ask about your earnings, enabling the council to decide whether enforcement action is worthwhile.
If you do receive an information request from a council, you will have 14 days to respond – and not responding is a criminal offence.
Do debt collectors need a court order?
Sometimes a council will use a debt collector to chase you for a payment before applying for a liability order. It is important to note that a debt collector is not the same as a bailiff. The debt collection worker will be chasing you for a payment before the matter is taken to court.
Only after court action could a bailiff possibly get involved (if you continue to not clear the debt after the judge requests you do so). Some people use the name high court enforcement officers to describe bailiffs.
Therefore, debt collectors do not need a court order to ask you to pay. But if you are using the term debt collector to refer to a bailiff, it’s a different matter…
Do council tax bailiffs need a court order?
A bailiff must have an active liability order instructing you to clear the council tax debt for them to come and enforce the debt. The same applies to creditor debt.
By “enforcing the debt”, we mean recovering the payment or taking control of your goods for sale. They can repossess some for your possessions and sell them at an auction with the funds raised put towards clearing your council debt.
You should be given seven days warning of their intended arrival to recover payment or goods, excluding national holidays and Sundays. This is known as enforcement notice or notice of enforcement.
There is a way you can cooperate with a high court enforcement officer without them coming to your home. The bailiff could ask if you want to enter into a virtual Controlled Goods Agreement ( CGA – a type of payment arrangement where your goods are used as collateral) and take the first payment over the phone.
Can I Pay the Bailiff Off?
The easiest way to deal with a bailiff coming to your house to collect council tax is to repay the debt. This will stop all future bailiff action relating to the debt.
Making a full payment can be good for your mental health and help you move on. If you do clear the money owed, or make a payment in part, make sure you get a receipt for the payment made.
If you cannot afford to pay the creditor or council in full, don’t panic.
You will still be offered a CGA in most situations. But if you don’t agree to a CGA, the bailiffs can take your goods.
Do I have to let county court bailiffs in?
One of the common questions asked is if you have to let bailiffs inside when they visit your home…
Even with a court order, you do not have to let a high court enforcement officer inside your home.
The bailiffs can only force entry to a home or business if all the following apply:
- They are taking control of goods inside
- You have missed a CGA repayment
- You received two days’ notice they were coming to take control or consider taking control of these goods
Forcing entry is more likely to occur when trying to collect income tax or national insurance debts, council arrears and criminal fines.
And just because they can use force doesn’t mean they can physically harm you.
Even then, you can still ask for proof that the bailiff is registered in England to work as an enforcement agent.
However, the bailiff is allowed to gain entry to your home without force if possible, which could mean walking through an unlocked door or standing in a door entryway and then refusing to move.
Bailiffs are not allowed to force entry through unlocked windows, but it is advised you keep them locked just in case you are dealing with a rogue officer.
They can even enter through an unlocked door when you are not at home yourself. But they cannot enter your home between the hours of 9pm and 6am.
What if you don’t have any valuables?
Some people dealing with bailiffs cannot afford to repay their debt and have no goods of real value that are deemed worth repossessing. The bailiff may think that the resources needed to remove goods are more costly than the actual value of the goods.
It’s also important to remember that bailiffs cannot take some items, such as a work computer, consumables or cooking appliances. Hire purchase vehicles cannot be repossessed during a bailiff visit because you do not own the car outright.
In these scenarios, the high court enforcement officers are allowed to return within 12 months to find out if you have since acquired the funds to pay or own new valuable possessions that are worth repossessing.
If you are making bailiff repayments, the 12-month time limit only begins once you stop making repayments.
What fees can debt bailiffs charge?
There are fixed fees that a high court enforcement officer can charge you for enforcing a court order.
There is an initial £75 charge for the groundwork and carrying out checks. Then there is a £235 charge for the first visit of your premises to attempt to recover payment or seize goods. And a further £110 fee for completing the process of selling your goods.
You could be subject to additional fees if your debt is greater than £1,500 or for storing your goods until they are sold.
Some vulnerable people are not subject to all of the enforcement agent fees listed above, including single parents and people with terminal illnesses, or those who have recently become unemployed.
Sometimes bailiffs are not even allowed to come to your property in these situations.
How to avoid a high court enforcement officer
The best way to avoid having to deal with enforcement agents trying to enforce a court order is to not let your debts escalate this far in the first place.
We get it. Sometimes that’s much easier said than done.
If you are expecting to have council debts, make sure you communicate with the council and explain the situation.
Citizens Advice has neatly explained how some people qualify for council tax reductions.
And if you are already being chased for council debt, continue a dialogue with the council and get advice from a debt charity. These charities can support you and help find a way to agree to repayment plans with the council – so it never gets to court and court orders. If you continue to ignore them, they might apply for a hearing at the Magistrates’ Court.
And you can always get free debt advice about enforcement agents and council debts with us at MoneyNerd.