My name is Brian Moulton, and I work as a Debt Advisor at Citizens Advice Greenwich, providing advice as part of Debt Free London.
There are probably many of us who have found themselves at some time or another in the somewhat difficult position of being owed money by a friend or family member who has failed to make the promised repayments on the agreed date.
What do you do in a situation like that? Send threatening letters? Add extra amounts to the total owed? Turn up at their house and behave aggressively and threaten to come in and take away their telly, their computer, their stereo and so on?
No, of course you don’t, and that’s because you are not some kind of thug and neither are you a bailiff!
This is a case concerning three Council Tax debts for three different financial years which had been through the legal stages allowing the Local Authority to enforce the debts. They chose to do this by assigning Enforcement Agents, more commonly known to us all as bailiffs.
My client had sought our advice regarding the amount which the bailiffs had been claiming remained owed. She had not allowed the bailiffs to enter her home (bailiffs are not allowed to force entry to a debtor’s home unless they have previously gained what is termed “peaceful entry”), and she had made an arrangement by phoning the bailiff's office and she had been broadly keeping to the arrangement.
My client had owed a total of £739.35 to Council Tax spread over the debts, and this sum included their legal costs but not the bailiff fees.
She had paid the bailiffs a total of £960.27, and this was not in dispute as our client had provided us with separate documents for each of the three debts and the information on these documents included the totals paid on each one.
So the client had paid £220.92 above the amounts owed to Council Tax, and yet she was being advised by the bailiffs that she still owed £709.08. She had felt this could surely not be right and had tried to take the matter up with the bailiffs herself prior to seeking our advice but she said that when she phoned their offices she was informed that they could not access the details of the amounts which she had paid, despite those amounts appearing on the bailiff documents. She was told she would need to take the matter up with the actual bailiff who had been assigned to her case. Martha, to give my client a name, told me that she felt that the bailiffs were at best being unhelpful, and at worse, were actively obstructing her attempts at resolving the matter.
I was able to advise Martha that under the Taking Control of Goods Act 2014 the bailiffs are allowed to charge a Compliance Fee of £75 for each debt, plus an Enforcement Fee of £235 but that when there is more than one debt from the same creditor, and it is reasonable for the Enforcement Agents to exercise their enforcement powers at the same time, the £235 Enforcement Fee can only be applied once.
So, it was quite clear in this case, that if the bailiffs had been assigned the debts by the Local Authority’s Council Tax on or around the same date, they would be able to use their enforcement powers on all three debts simultaneously and so their total charges should have been £75 x 3 plus £235 = £460.00. So £460, added to the £739.35 which had been owed to Council Tax comes to £1,199.35. Martha had paid £960.27 and so she should have owed only £239.08, not £709.08. It seemed clear to me that my client was being told that she owed £470.00 too much.
My first thought was that the bailiffs may have added the £235 Enforcement Fee on all three debts as that would account for the £470 excess charges. You may well think why would the bailiffs do that? Surely they must know what fees they can charge and what fees they can’t. And if you do think that then all I can say is that you don’t know bailiffs as I and my debt advice colleagues do!
I phoned the bailiffs there and then with my client present, but before I provide an account on how the discussion went, I need to tell you about a letter from the bailiffs which had recently been sent to Martha.
It was a letter headed Prior Notice of Intended Proceedings, and it said:
“I have made arrangements to remove your goods during the course of the next few days and would prefer you were present so that we can agree on the list of items removed.”
This is an extremely misleading letter as it clearly implies that should Martha not be at home when the bailiffs call, that they would simply let themselves in, forcing entry if we assume that Martha, who lives alone, locks her doors before leaving the house, and remove whatever goods they identified as having a sell on value. As I already said, bailiffs are not allowed to force entry unless they have already gained peaceful entry and my client was very clear about the fact that she had not allowed the bailiffs to enter her home.
And so to the phone call. The call was answered, not by one of their admin team as is often the case but by an actual Enforcement Agent named Katie.
I began by asking when the debts were assigned to the bailiffs and I was advised that all three had gone to them on 30th January 2018.
I put it to Katie that we think that there may have been an error regarding the bailiff fees because according to our calculations our client had been overcharged by £470 which suggests that the £235 Enforcement Fee may have been applied to all of the debts instead of just to one of them.
Katie claimed that the bailiffs are allowed to apply the Enforcement Fee to each of the debts and so being very confident that this is not the case, I maintained my position, insisting that this is not the case if the debts come from the same creditor and at roughly the same time at which point Katie began shouting, very loudly, saying that I was being aggressive and that she has already told me that they are allowed to apply these charges to each debt and that she should know as she’s the Enforcement Officer.
I replied by saying that I do not believe that I am being aggressive and that all I am trying to do is ensure that my client is charged correctly but before I could even get around to quoting Regulation 11 of the Taking Control of Goods Act Katie, by now pretty much screaming at me, insisted that I was being aggressive and that if there is anything I am unhappy about that I needed to send in a letter.
At this point, realising that I was going to get nowhere by trying to continue the call, I replied by informing Katie that what I am going to do is to send in a letter of complaint to the Local Authority. “Fine”, replied Katie as she slammed down the phone.
The complaint letter was sent to the Local Authority Council Tax’s Finance Debt Manager. The letter covered three issues; the overcharging, the misleading letter, and indeed the manner in which our phone enquiry had been dealt with.
The outcome was an extremely positive one. Both Martha and I received personal apologies from the Finance Debt Manager. The bailiff company were removed from the case. Martha had not only the illegitimate fees refunded but also the legitimate ones in recognition of the way in which her case had been mishandled. This meant that the remaining £239.08 owed on the three debts was cleared and her liabilities for the current year bill were reduced, resulting in a re-scheduling of current year monthly payments so that she now pays significantly less each month. The bailiff company was placed on a final warning with regard to the continuation of their contract with Council Tax.
As for the misleading letter, we have been informed that that particular template will not be used again by the bailiff company and any new templates they design will need to be approved by the Local Authority first.
The Council Tax department, having listened to a recording of the phone call instructed the bailiff company to never again allow Katie to speak to any Local Authority debtor and subsequently the bailiff company dismissed her from her post. From my point of view, I don’t like the feeling of having caused someone to lose their job and while it’s fair to say that she probably deserved it, I think it is also true that she was basically just holding the bailiff company’s line, and that the problem is really far more endemic than just one rogue bailiff- she was not even the bailiff who was managing Martha’s case and so was not directly responsible for the illegitimate fees being applied to the debt.
Our only disappointment regarding this case is that having had numerous problems with this particular bailiff company before, they have hung on to their contract with the Local Authority, albeit by the skin of their teeth.
And finally, while of course we all recognise the importance of paying our Council Tax bills if we wish to maintain the many vital services which the funds accrued provide, my personal disappointment is that the Local Authority continues to employ bailiffs at all. There are many other options available to the Local Authority and other creditors when it comes to debt enforcement, and I would like to think that one day, this antiquated method of using licenced bullies to turn up at people’s front doors to demand money with menaces will become a thing of the past.