Posted November 27, 2023
2023 has seen important progress when it comes to bailiffs, with the Enforcement Conduct Board taking on initial accreditation of enforcement agents – commonly known as bailiffs - and working to develop a new set of standards for them to follow.
This is hugely welcome. However, another crucial element of bailiff practice concerns fees and the rules around these are set out in regulations overseen by the Ministry of Justice. The regulations govern what bailiffs are allowed to charge and what they must do when carrying out their activities.
Fees added to debts passed to bailiffs can have a significant impact on people already struggling financially, so we are pleased to see the Ministry of Justice consulting on changes to the current fee rules. As part of the Taking Control campaign, we’ve long been calling for reform of the bailiff industry, and these proposals include some welcome, if limited, positive changes.
What does the consultation propose?
Starting with the less-good news, the Ministry of Justice are unfortunately proposing that fees will be increased by 5% overall, which will mean people in financial difficulty have to pay more when their debt is collected by bailiffs.
But there are other changes being proposed alongside this, which go some way to improve the situation for people faced with bailiff action. Here we explore some of the key ones, and what they might mean for people in debt.
Extending the notice period
Firstly, the notice period for a bailiff visit will be extended from seven to 28 days, which will help give people more time to seek debt advice, work out what they can afford to pay and agree a payment plan with the bailiff. It is particularly good to see sole traders included in this proposal, but we have some concerns that other small businesses are being left out. As the charity behind Business Debtline we are very aware that small businesses also need time to seek debt advice and can be in extremely difficult financial situations.
Earlier agreement of repayment plans
A key issue with the existing regulations has been confusion over what they say about whether High Court Enforcement Officers (HCEOs) – a type of bailiff - must visit (and add extra fees to the debt) before agreeing an offer to pay the debt back in instalments. The changes clarify that HCEOs can agree a payment arrangement at the early ‘compliance’ fee stage without visiting. This is a vital change that could save people significant amounts of money in extra fees, costs that many people simply cannot afford to pay.
Greater clarity over what is expected of a bailiff at ‘compliance’ stage
That’s not the only area where the Ministry of Justice is looking to give greater clarity. As part of the Taking Control campaign, we’ve long highlighted the need to set out clearly what a bailiff must do at the early ‘compliance’ stage before they can move on to further enforcement and charge extra fees. It’s great to see that the Ministry of Justice has listened and is proposing to do just that. We are thinking very carefully about what should be on the list of tasks and will be setting this out in our response to the consultation.
Providing clear information about where to get support
Being contacted by a bailiff can be a distressing experience, and people don’t always know what their rights are or where to turn to for help. It’s therefore welcome to see the Ministry of Justice proposing to require bailiffs to send out a separate information sheet when they send people an enforcement notice. This will signpost people to free debt advice and encourage engagement with bailiffs. We think this is a great opportunity to develop a message in simple, plain English that reassures people debt advice and support is out there, and that people may be able to apply for breathing space whilst they get advice.
Reforming High Court enforcement fees
High Court Enforcement Officers (HCEOs) have their own, separate fee scale which allows them to charge more for High Court enforcement. We would have liked to see this fee scale reduced so it is more in line with what Enforcement Agents can charge. While we are disappointed not to see this included in the proposals, the Ministry of Justice is proposing some technical changes that would help to level the playing field between the fees HCEOs and Enforcement Agents can charge. Amongst other things, the new rules would clarify that HCEOs cannot charge a second ‘enforcement fee’ just for attending a property when no one is in. They will only be able to add the extra enforcement fee when goods are “physically secured”.
Importantly, the Ministry of Justice is also looking at whether the High Court fee scale is now disproportionate for low value debts, with the potential for some people to pay more in fees than the value of the original debt. To address this, the Ministry of Justice have proposed raising the debt limit, which would mean that people will only have to pay one, lower enforcement fee unless they owe more than a set amount, potentially over £1,200.
The Ministry of Justice’s consultation closes on 4th December. As we’ve set out here, there’s a lot we’ll be welcoming (while also highlighting the need for tweaks or improvements on some proposals). It’s crucial that the Ministry of Justice sticks to the overall proposals, which would go a little way to improving the experience of vulnerable people in debt when faced with the stress and expense of enforcement action.
Meg is the Money Advice Trust's Policy Lead and has more than 35 years' experience in the debt advice sector. She is on the Quarterly Account editorial board and a range of other forums. View all posts from Meg van Rooyen.