Bailiffs’ practice of threatening to take low value items and charging fees for doing so was criticised by the Local Government Ombudsman. A bailiff’s threat to remove a door mat and charge £230 fees was described as unreasonable.
The report concerned a complaint against Slough Borough Council's bailiffs and the Ombudsman issued it as a matter of public interest, to send a clear message to other councils which may need to review their practices.
She also criticised the handling of the complaint by the bailiffs and the Council saying: “If bailiffs and their employers are to properly deal with complaints, they should consider all the circumstances and take a wider view, not just focus on the legality of their own actions.”
The Ombudsman reported on her investigation into a complaint from a man who was not up to date with his council tax payments. Slough Borough Council instructed bailiffs to recover the debt. When unable to gain access to his home the bailiff seized a door mat and charged fees of £230 for this action. When he complained to the bailiff firm and then the Council, he was told the fees were legal.
The Ombudsman agreed that, where people do not pay their council tax, it is right and proper for councils to take enforcement action against them, including the use of bailiffs. But she stressed that “non-payment of council tax, no matter how large the sum owed or the behaviour of the debtor, is no excuse for debt recovery officers to behave unreasonably when trying to recover a debt.”
Bailiffs will not always be able to find goods of sufficient value to clear the debt and the costs, and it is legal to seize goods of a lower value and charge the statutory fees for doing this. It will be a matter for the judgement of the bailiff as to how reasonable the disparity between the potential value of the goods and the debt is. In some cases it will be appropriate for the debtor to challenge the reasonableness of such a levy in the courts; that will depend on the facts of each case. But in some cases, and this is one, the unreasonableness of the action was clearly beyond dispute and there was no need for legal action to establish this.
The Ombudsman said: “In this case I consider that the disparity was so great that any reasonable person would have concluded that the levy on the door mat should not have been made. As the levy should not have been made the fees should not have been charged. The bailiff was also at fault in charging what appears to have been too great a sum for the attendance fee.”
When the bailiff firm and the Council considered the concerns raised they concentrated on the legality of the situation and did not take a view on the reasonableness of the action.
The Ombudsman found that the levying on such a low value item as a door mat, the charging of the fees for this, and not considering the reasonableness of this action amounted to maladministration.
She noted the action the Council and the bailiffs had taken in acknowledging they were wrong and withdrawing the fees. Given this and taking into account the complainant’s failure to pay his council tax, she did not consider that any further remedy was needed in this case.