Has your council tax arrears escalated and you now face bailiffs? 

We have important information you need to know when dealing with enforcement agents sent by a local authority. Before you allow a bailiff into your home, you should hear this and seek debt advice.

Read this short guide to understand if an enforcement agent can force their way in your house – and how you might be able to stop them.

Simplified Process of Collecting Council Tax Arrears

The council will write a letter to you asking you to pay what you owe as soon as possible and within seven days. 

If you fail to pay your bill, they will contact you again, asking you to pay or face county court action. 

If they have to contact you a third time, they might ask you to pay the remaining year’s worth of tax in one payment.

If you continue to ignore them, the process for collecting arrears typically follows:

  1. Court action- a judge issues you with a liability order requesting you make arrangements to pay.
  1. If you still don’t pay, the council will use the liability order to enforce the debt, which might mean they employ local enforcement agents to turn up at your door. Enforcement is possible in ways not using a bailiff. Bailiff action can be stressful. Alternatively they may use an attachment of earnings order where you won’t face bailiffs but you will have to repay from your wages. 
  1. The enforcement agents must follow a series of stages, giving you a chance to pay or sign a Controlled Goods Agreement (CGA). This is a repayment plan secured against your valuables to deter you from failing to pay.
  1. If no CGA is accepted, the enforcement agents will visit your home to seize possession of goods – such as a car – which are then sold at auction to pay the debt. You will have to pay for this bailiff enforcement service as well. 

This is a typical process for someone not agreeing to clear tax owed, but it can change depending on your circumstances and other factors.  

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How to Stop Council Tax Bailiffs

You should aim to clear your debt or come to an agreement before an enforcement agent gets involved. 

This is because as soon as a bailiff is employed, they start charging fees that are added to your debt. 

If you do pay anything to a bailiff, make sure you get a receipt.

Prevention is better than cure when it comes to bailiff action! Dealing with bailiffs can take a toll on your mental health. 

If an enforcement agent has already been employed to enforce the debt, they will write to you asking you to make a payment in full or agree to a CGA. They will give you seven ‘clear’ days’ notice to pay your debts, or they will come to your house.

Thus, you can stop coming to your door by paying or agreeing to affordable monthly payments. 

Again, get a receipt if you have paid.

Another way to stop bailiffs is if you are classed as a vulnerable person as stated in the Taking Control of Goods (Fees) Regulation. 

This regulation says what people can be charged by bailiffs and discusses some exemptions. 

Bailiffs cannot repossess goods from someone at their home if they are deemed vulnerable before they get free advice from a debt charity or organisation. 

You would be considered vulnerable for many reasons, not limited to recent bereavement or unemployment, learning difficulties, pregnancy or if you are a single parent. 

You should call the enforcement agent if you are a vulnerable person to explain, so they do enter your home to take goods. 

The additional benefit is that a bailiff company cannot apply some bailiff fees if you are vulnerable, including the first visit fee which is over £200!

Remember, it’s best to call them before they call on you!

But you should also know the law says a bailiff can still request you to clear the money owed even if you are deemed vulnerable. They must only not take goods until the individual has received debt advice. 

Can bailiffs force entry for council tax?

A bailiff can make their way into your home on a visit if a door is open or unlocked, known as peaceful entry. In most cases, they are not allowed to force their way in, and you don’t have to let a bailiff in. 

The exception to this rule is if you owe money on a CGA secured against possessions inside your home. If you have failed to pay the bailiff what you agreed to, the bailiffs could give you notice to attend your home and use reasonable force to enter. 

They cannot harm you and they can only enter to take the goods named within the CGA. 

This is why it is important to keep paying your CGA or communicate with the company if you need to miss a payment or change the schedule. The bailiff may be able to help if you speak with them first. 

A bailiff can walk onto an opened driveway to take possession of a car. 

Can the council enter my property without notice?

You might also be wondering if the local council can come into your property. 

If you live in council housing, any appointed housing officer must provide you with notice to enter the property, to do an inspection or to fix a problem for example.

They cannot force entry.

Nor can they visit to discuss the local council debt or threaten to remove valuables. 

If they do this, seek advice and consider lodging a complaint. 

Council officers do not have the right to enter privately owned properties, but they can go onto private land to carry out essential work for the council.

How long can you be chased for council tax debt?

If you live in England or Wales and have not been made legally responsible, the debt can become unenforceable (Statute Barred) after six years. 

This means they can’t take legal action and you’ll never face bailiff action.

The reason that this loophole exists is to protect the legal system from becoming overwhelmed with older cases. 

However, most councils will try to collect the debt using a court order within this timeframe. 

If you have been issued a liability order, the law says this order does not expire. But the order is only to enforce the debt and the actual money owed can still be nullified by becoming Statute Barred.

In summary, Statute Barred overrides any order. 

In Scotland, the rules for Statute Barred exist too, but they do not cover council tax. The national timeframe for this type of debt to become unenforceable in Scotland is 20 years. 

If you think your arrears are no longer enforceable, it’s best to seek advice first to make sure. 

Can I write off council tax debts?

Council tax arrears can be written off using debt solutions

The debt would be cleared immediately if you were to declare yourself bankrupt, which is not suitable to everyone’s circumstances and you should get advice before proceeding. 

There are other and more suitable options out there…

You could also wipe the debt if you do not have a lot of disposable income each month through a Debt Relief Order. For the first year, the rules say you cannot be asked for payments, charged fees or threatened with high court action.

And if your finances do not improve after the year ends, your debts included in the DRO will be wiped.  

Another debt solution that can reduce the amount you need to repay on multiple debts – and help you avoid bailiffs – is an IVA.

This is a legally binding solution where you make one monthly repayment which is split between all creditors (and maybe a council) for five years. At the end of these years, all debts are written off. 

Charities can provide advice on these and other solutions. 

Can you go to jail for council tax debts?

Ignoring bailiffs

You can be sent to prison for up to 90 days for not paying council tax. 

If you do not pay an appointed bailiff company and prevent the bailiffs from taking control of goods, the council could apply to the Magistrates’ Court for a hearing.

The judge will investigate why you have not paid the money owed, and if they think you have willfully neglected or avoided paying, you can be sent to prison for up to 90 days.

It is quite rare for this to happen, but it was reported in a national newspaper that 305 people were sent to prison for not paying their council tax between 2013 and 2019. 

Whatever stage you are at in dealing with these types of debts, always remember that debt charities are here to talk and offer compassionate support and advice!

About the author

Scott Nelson

Scott Nelson is a financial services expert, with over 10 years’ experience in the industry, including 6 years in FCA regulated companies. Read more
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