Merlyn Holkar, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

A review of the 2014 Bailiff Reforms: the importance of experts

Earlier this month the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) published its long awaited (two years late!) review of the 2014 Bailiff Reforms, designed to stamp out aggressive behaviour. The review is ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the impact of reform in the first year, in direct contrast to concerns raised by the advice sector, although it concedes that it will take time for these changes to bed in and for the full impact to become apparent.

Alongside the review, the MoJ announced plans for a crackdown on rogue bailiffs who aren’t living up to the 2014 reforms, citing “lingering concerns over aggressive behaviour by (a) minority of bailiffs”. We’re glad to see the MoJ taking evidence of malpractice seriously, and we hope that they will also press ahead with the promised three year review of the reforms, and crunch the numbers again now that we’re further down the path of implementation.

Collections activity is never going to be pleasant for the debtor. But if we want access to the benefits of credit, then it’s a necessary part of the system. What’s not necessary is the harm that is currently caused by the way that collections activity is carried out. Policymakers should be mindful of this when evaluating the reforms, and bailiff behaviour more broadly. Collections are a practical component of the credit process, not a punishment or a moral judgement on the debtor. So we should minimise distress and harm, particularly for the most vulnerable people. When evaluating the level of harm caused by the industry, an important starting point should always be to trust the assessment of the experts; in this instance, the debt advisers on the front line, and the people on the receiving end of bailiff activity.

Worrying signs from the frontline

The MoJ review contains some valuable intel from the frontline – including a survey of over 200 advice workers who were asked to assess changes in bailiff behaviour in first year of the reforms, based on their professional experience. The results are worrying, suggesting that key aspects of bailiff behaviour did not improve, and may have even worsened over this period:

  • One in three advisers (28%) reported that bailiffs’ use of threatening behaviour had got worse since the reforms. A further half (47%) said that they’d seen no change in this behaviour.
  • One in three advisers (31%) reported that bailiffs’ treatment of vulnerable clients had got worse since the reforms. A further 44% reporting no change in this behaviour.

This data isn’t complete or perfect, but it’s alarming and it should certainly be taken seriously. Advice workers deal with countless bailiff cases, including many vulnerable clients, and are well placed to identify gaps between policy and practice. Indeed, Money and Mental Health research (conducted since the reforms) has also found that excessive or aggressive contact from collections staff remains a problem, and that it can have a serious impact on people’s mental health. (Watch this space – we’re publishing new recommendations for reducing the psychological harm caused by bailiffs in the next few weeks).

“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.’”

That’s why we’re part of Taking Control – a campaign calling for independent regulation of the bailiff industry, to hold firms to account and clean up bad practice.

Stoking stigma and discouraging disclosures

It was also disappointing to see MoJ repeat complaints of an increase in “vexatious claims of vulnerability”, often in the form of template letters designed to put off enforcement action, since the reforms. This suggests a lack of appreciation for just how difficult disclosure can be and risks major unintended consequences. By treating statements of vulnerability with suspicion, the sector risks undermining the protections laid out in the 2014 reforms by stoking stigma and discouraging legitimate disclosures.

People often find it incredibly difficult to disclose information about their mental health problems, both practically and emotionally. In the pits of depression people often lack the energy for basic self-care, so drafting a letter for a bailiff can become practically impossible – in these circumstances a standard template letter can be a lifeline. Whereas others simply don’t feel comfortable sharing sensitive information about their health with strangers, sometimes due to stigma or lack of trust. As a result, many miss out on benefits and other support that they’re entitled to.

In recognition of these difficulties, firms should take active steps to make it as easy and accessible as possible for clients to notify them about a vulnerability. Otherwise it will be those with the biggest problems who will find it hardest to engage and will miss out on the protections extended by the 2014 reforms. Letting the bailiffs know that you’re struggling isn’t supposed to be a test, and the MoJ should recognise that template letters can be a real godsend for those who are unwell or unconfident.

The MoJ should show leadership on this important issue, by clarifying that statements of vulnerability should be taken at face value, unless or until there is any evidence to the contrary, and that firms cannot adopt a hostile or sceptical attitude to these claims, in a bid to discourage disclosures.