Kate Langston, External Affairs Officer, Money and Mental Health

Calling time on bad bailiff behaviour

15 February 2019

Please note: this post contains information about suicide that readers may find distressing. If you’re in need of support, you can call Samaritans for free on 116 123 anytime of the day – or you can text SHOUT to 85258. For information about where to find support with your money or mental health, you can find some resources on our get help page

“I was behind with energy bills. They hammered on the door several times, then the window and tried to open it, then the door again. They shouted my name and details about the company they ‘represented’ loudly through my letterbox, which was frightening, embarrassing and I had panic attacks. This happened a couple of times… I already suffer from anxiety, panic attacks and stress, and these episodes were horrific. I still don’t answer my door to this day if I’m not expecting someone, and keep my curtains permanently closed 24/7, purely because of the fear those visits instilled in me.”

Dealing with a visit from bailiffs can be a terrifying enough situation for anyone to have to experience. But now imagine that you struggle with anxiety, or are in the midst of a depressive episode. Our research suggests that around of half of the people bailiffs engage with are experiencing mental health problems, and this contact can cause panic attacks, exacerbate symptoms of depression, and even trigger thoughts of suicide. The psychological harm that contact by bailiffs can cause is only made worse by officers who break rules and engage in aggressive and threatening tactics.

It’s reasons like this that we’re part of the Taking Control campaign for bailiff reform. And this week marked a milestone for the campaign, as we came together with partners across the debt advice sector to call on the government to act.

The story so far

In 2014, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) introduced reforms to the bailiff industry that were designed to put an end to aggressive behaviour. This included the introduction of mandatory training for enforcement agents, and a set of simple rules specifying when an agent can enter a property.

Last year the MoJ published its long-awaited one year review of these changes, which contained worrying feedback from those working in the debt advice sector. A survey of debt advisers found that 28% had seen an increase in threatening behaviour by bailiffs, and one in three had seen a worsening in the treatment of vulnerable people, since the reforms.

The scale of the problem

A more recent report by Citizens Advice estimates that 850,000 people contacted by bailiffs over the last two years have experienced bailiffs breaking the rules. This includes agents misrepresenting their rights of entry, and seizing people’s goods inappropriately. There are also continued reports of bailiffs failing to fact sympathetically towards people classed as vulnerable, including people experiencing mental health problems – something members of our Research Community have also told us about.

The same Citizens Advice report also found that less than a third of people who experience bailiffs breaking the rules make a complaint. It found that many people were being put off by a lack of faith in the complaints process or confusion about how it works.

We therefore welcomed the announcement of a fresh MoJ consultation on bailiff reform in November as an opportunity to push for further changes to the industry that we believe are urgently needed. The consultation closes on Sunday, and so we’ve joined with our partners in the Taking Control coalition to set out to the MoJ what we think needs to change.

What we’re asking for

Together we’re calling on the MoJ to introduce two key changes that could help to address these issues, and offer better protections for people struggling with their mental health and debt:

  1. Independent regulation – to ensure that bailiff firms and individual bailiffs stick to the rules which govern their behaviour.
  2. Independent complaints process – to ensure people can get redress when bailiffs break the rules.

But it’s not just us that thinks these changes are needed. New national polling by Taking Control members found that over 80% of people think the bailiff industry should be subject to independent regulation, and almost 90% want to see an independent complaints process.

We hope the MoJ will consider the strength of support for these reforms – and the difference they could make to people struggling with their mental health and debt – when it responds to the consultation later this year. Along with our partners in the Taking Control coalition, we will be continuing to push the government to act on these issues, so that we can reduce the psychological harm that bailiff behaviour too often causes.