Katrina Gaffney, External Affairs Officer, Money and Mental Health

Bailiff reform: A year has passed and we need action

PLEASE NOTE: This blog contains information on the subject of suicide that some people may find distressing.
17 February 2020

Today marks a year since the Ministry of Justice closed their call for evidence on bailiff reform. In a joint submission with members of the Taking Control campaign, we called for the introduction of independent bailiff regulation and an independent complaints process. The government is yet to publish a response but the need for reform of the bailiff industry is as urgent as ever. 

New figures from Citizens Advice reveal that since February 2019 they have been contacted by 41,121 individuals with 111,081 issues specific to bailiffs. Meanwhile, 83% of callers to National Debtline who have experienced bailiff action, reported that a bailiff visit had a negative impact on their wellbeing. These figures highlight the widespread damage that the bailiff industry is currently causing.

Our own research has shown that a visit from the bailiffs can cause significant psychological harm – resulting in panic attacks, feelings of despair, and even triggering suicidal thoughts. For many the psychological harm of a visit from bailiffs is exacerbated by the use of unsavoury and aggressive collection tactics.  

“Being hounded by bailiffs that terrified me was horrific. The debt I found myself in was something I couldn’t see a way out of and thought suicide was my best bet and only way out.”

Mental health matters

A significant number of the people bailiffs engage with will be experiencing mental health problems. We know that half of people in problem debt have a mental health problem, and among StepChange clients contacted by a bailiff, 47% said they had depression and 66% stress or anxiety. The prevalence of mental health problems among people visited by bailiffs should mean that extra care is taken to account for vulnerabilities – but it seems that often the opposite is true.

Members of our Research Community have told us that the disclosure of a mental health problem to bailiffs can be met with an inappropriate and insensitive response. We have also heard stories of people being subject to threatening behaviour, and intimidated into making payments they simply can’t afford. This has the potential to worsen an individual’s mental health, and the anxiety caused by these tactics can make people more reluctant to address their financial difficulties in the long run.

“When I explained that I had a mental health condition he told me ‘that’s not my problem, you need to pay what you owe or your car gets taken away.’”

Where are we now?

Since submitting our joint response to the Ministry of Justice, the influential Justice Select Committee has published a report recommending the introduction of independent bailiff regulation. And in acknowledgement of the urgent need for these reforms, a cross-party group of MPs – including BEIS Select Committee Chair Rachel Reeves and former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Lord Pickles – have today written to the government in support of our campaign.

In July 2019, the government announced that they intended to strengthen regulation of the bailiff industry and require the use of body-worn cameras. While any progress on this issue is welcome, we’re clear that these measures do not go far enough to protect people from the bad practice which is prevalent in the industry. 

We’ll be working with members of the Taking Control group to ramp up pressure on the government to deliver independent regulation of the bailiff industry, and an independent complaints procedure. Both will be crucial in protecting people with debt and mental health problems from the psychological damage that bad practice in the bailiff industry can cause.