‘Pay or it triples’: UK bailiffs accused of violent crime | money

dr Naomi Spiers was sleeping off a night shift when there was a loud bang on the door. She curled up under the covers, but the pounding wouldn’t stop.

When she responded, her visitor – who wore a face mask and bulletproof vest – demanded £425. He held out a card machine for her to pay. “I thought, ‘What the hell?’ He said, “Is that your car? I put a clamp on it.’”

Spiers’ original offense was late payment of a £2.50 toll charge. She worked the night shift in the emergency room and said she missed the payment deadline at midnight the following day and the debt was passed on to a private enforcement firm.

She asked if she could agree on a payment plan but claims the bailiff insisted she pay on the spot. “He said, ‘You only have a few minutes before the tow truck comes and then it’s going to be another 800 pounds,'” Spiers said. The company disputes her account.

She needed her car to get to work that evening so she paid the £425. “I felt so attacked and the only way to make him go was to pay. It felt like a bullyboy tactic,” she said. “When he left I was incredibly angry and devastated. It was like ‘pay pay pay pay pay or it will triple’.”

The 36-year-old, from south-east London, is among a growing number of Brits being visited by bailiffs, who are often deployed by public authorities to collect cash – sometimes for the most minor offences. The fees bailiffs can charge are limited, but in extreme cases the amount can be hundreds of pounds more than what was initially owed. In Spiers’ case, the bailiff claimed she received multiple letters, including the original criminal complaint and subsequent enforcement notices. But Spiers says she only received one letter and that it was backdated. She tried to pay the fine of £180 but when she called the premium rate hotline on her lunch break she couldn’t get through.

When confronted with a bailiff outside her door, the charge was 170 times the original toll. “This is daylight robbery,” she said.

Before the pandemic, referrals to bailiffs had been rising rapidly, with about 3 million civil enforcement cases in 2019, according to the Center for Social Justice — an increase of more than 600,000 in five years.

In the initial lockdown, the government suspended bailiff visits, but they resumed later that year, with members of the Civil Enforcement Association making more than 1.5 million visits between September 2020 and April 2021.

Charities have warned that the number of cases involving bailiffs will rise as the rising cost of living pushes households into debt. New figures suggest they are already starting to rise, with Citizens Advice receiving 2,704 requests for help from bailiffs last month, compared to 1,884 in December.

Most of the cases Citizens Advice hears about involve community tax arrears, but according to the Money Advice Trust, bailiffs – who are also often used by energy and utility companies – are increasingly being used for minor violations such as parking fines.

For those on the receiving end, it can be traumatizing and humiliating. In a case recorded earlier this year by debt advice organization StepChange, a recently widowed woman was contacted by bailiffs “two to three times a day about paying council tax arrears.” “The client suffers from serious mental health problems and this causes her more stress,” the helpline counselors wrote in their notes.

In another case, a woman whose partner was undergoing chemotherapy was visited in the dark by bailiffs who “banged loudly on the door and shouted ‘You don’t pay your council tax'”.

Faith Gillin, 53, from Northampton, said she was “incredibly concerned” after a visit by bailiffs in October. The mother of one child had received a knock at 6 a.m. on a dark morning. “I came down in my robe and there was this big guy standing there. He said, ‘Remember driving in a bus lane in April?’”

She later discovered that she had forgotten to update her address with the DVLA as required and that a fine sent to her old address had not been paid. But the council didn’t contact her at her new address, although she has the details on file, she says – instead she passed the debt on to an enforcement firm.

Whilst Gillin had “no problem” with the £440 fine, she feels that “when someone knocks on your door at 6am because you got into a bus lane, it’s ridiculous”. “I was shaken by it for a couple of weeks. I was so distressed that when my postman knocked on the door, I didn’t want to open the door,” she said.

She accused councils of failing in their duty of care by passing on smaller debts to bailiffs, which she says could have a serious impact on people’s mental health. “It’s a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” she said.

The Civil Enforcement Association said the industry was “committed to raising standards” and that there was “no evidence of systemic problems in the use of law enforcement officers.” It added that complaints were thoroughly investigated and that bailiffs helped recover hundreds of millions of pounds for the taxpayer.

There have been improvements in recent years. In 2014, the government introduced guidelines stating that bailiffs should not act in a threatening or intentionally embarrassing manner, should not pressure debtors to make inappropriate offers of payment, and should withdraw from cases where the person is deemed to be at risk.

A new independent body to oversee bailiffs is due to be established later this year. Photo: Alex Segre/Alamy

And later this year, after years of campaigning, a new independent body to oversee bailiffs is due to be established. The exact remit of the Enforcement Conduct Board has yet to be determined, but it is expected to investigate complaints and fine companies for poor practices and has been hailed by the industry as “landmark reform”.

Meanwhile, councils and government agencies say the use of bailiffs is proportionate. Highways England said it only used bailiffs when people failed to respond to a criminal complaint. There is no need to visit clients in person before cases are referred and bailiffs are subject to extensive checks and training. The Local Government Association said bailiffs should only ever be a “last resort”.

But charities and campaigners want more reforms – including legal rules to hold bailiffs accountable – and say a more compassionate approach is needed.

Concerns have been raised about the employment model used by most bailiff firms – where agents are self-employed workers who earn commissions based on their caseload, rather than salaried employees. An advert for a major bailiff firm – which describes those with a military, police or HMP prison background as desirable candidates – offered an “unlimited commission” with “realistic earnings of between £35,000 and £65,000”.

StepChange policy officer Ed McDonagh said the model drove “a lot of the bad practice”. “Often bailiffs’ aggressive practices force people to just pay them off: they lean on expensive loans, friends and family, or loan sharks just to bail these people off their backs, driving them into this spiral of debt. ” he added.

Money Advice Trust’s Jane Tully said that while there has been “modest improvement” in the industry, the charity still hears of “bad practice”, including bailiffs “refusing affordable offers of payment, misrepresenting their powers or using threats language and regardless of people’s circumstances, even in cases where they are particularly vulnerable”. “We need to take more action to prevent people from falling behind in the first place and to ensure those who do are treated fairly,” she said.

Some councils take a different approach. Since 2017, Hammersmith and Fulham have implemented a process known as “ethical debt collection”. Instead of passing debts on to third-party enforcement agencies, she handles them herself.

The decision was prompted by concerns about the sector and the need to protect residents. Two years earlier, Jerome Rogers, a courier transporting blood between Croydon hospitals, took his own life after demanding £1,019 from bailiffs who had pinned his vehicle. The 20-year-old was given two fines of £65 each, but additional charges added more than £800 to the fee.

In extreme cases of persistent non-payment, the Council can still take the person to court and obtain a debt liability order. But before it reaches that stage, it decides to intervene early, “working constructively with families who are having difficulty paying,” contacting them through a variety of channels, and “working closely with the counseling sector.”

In the first year of the program’s inception, the municipality collected 96.76% of the municipal tax owed, an improvement over previous years.

“We don’t want to send bailiffs to people’s doors,” said councilor Maxwell Schmid, cabinet member for finance who pioneered the system.

“But alongside the moral side, you actually risk pushing families into even more desperate situations and homelessness. Who then pays the housing bill?

“If people continue to go into debt, the entire public sector will end up picking up the pieces.”

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