This fact sheet is aimed primarily at anyone who is experiencing problems with a bailiff employed by a council or other enforcing authority and may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman.
Enforcement agents are what were more commonly known as bailiffs. We will use the term bailiff in this factsheet.
I have a complaint against a bailiff. Can the Ombudsman help me?
In some cases, yes – where the bailiff is acting on behalf of the council. Whether or not we can investigate such complaints varies and this fact sheet can only provide a brief guide.
If your complaint concerns the bailiffs’ actions in collecting council tax, business rates or traffic enforcement penalties then we could normally investigate your complaint.
In some cases you could take the matter to court and we might expect you to do this.The courts can decide whether a bailiff's costs or actions are either excessive or unreasonable (such as the removal of too many goods, or making undue threats). Only the courts can resolve disputes about the ownership of goods which the bailiff has removed. However, we have discretion to decide whether to investigate or not - as long as you havenot started legal action on the point in question.
If your complaint concerns a bailiff collecting a debt for a council which is not council tax, business rates or a traffic penalty, we cannot investigate as the bailiff is acting directly for the courts.
If your complaint concerns a bailiff who is evicting you from your home we cannot investigate this. The bailiff will be acting for the court and complaints about the actions of a council as a domestic landlord are no longer considered by us. Eviction by a council or housing associatin are considered by the Housing Ombudsman Service instead.
How do I complain?
You should normally complain to the council first. Councils often have more than one stage in their complaints procedure and you will usually have to complete all stages before we will look at your complaint. The council may ask the bailiff to consider your complaint first to see if they can resolve it. If you are still dissatified, the council should then consider your complaint.
Then, if you are unhappy with the final outcome, or the council is taking too long to look into the matter – we think 12 weeks is reasonable – you can complain to us.
You should normally make your complaint to us within 12 months of realising that the council or bailiffs have done something wrong.
If you consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for?
We consider each complaint on its merits. We consider if the bailiffs did something wrong (this is the council’s responsibility because the bailiffs are acting on the council’s behalf); and whether the council did something wrong in the way it used the bailiffs. We then consider if this caused you problems. Some issues we could look at are whether:
- there has been an unreasonable delay in taking action
- the bailiffs have followed the proper procedure
- the bailiff has used ‘threatening behaviour’ – although we will need to take account of the fact that the arrival of anyone to take your goods can be seen as threatening (no matter how polite they may be)
- the bailiff has charged the correct costs and fees under the Fee Regulations.
What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the council was at fault?
It depends on what went wrong and how that affected you.
Where we find fault with the council’s procedures we will often recommend that the council introduces changes so the same problem will not happen again.
We may also ask the council to pay a financial remedy for the problems caused to you and for the time, trouble or expense you have been put to in pursuing your complaint.
Examples of some complaints we have considered
Mr Y used to run a business. This failed and he had moved back to his mother’s home, Mrs X. Mr Y still owed the council a debt for business rates. The council directed a bailiff to collect the debt.
The bailiff visited Mrs X’s address for her son’s debt. Mrs X opened the door to him. Body worn video camera evidence shows that Mrs X and Mr Y told the bailiff several times the property and its contents belong to Mrs X. In response the bailiff said that unless they could prove who owned the items, he would need to take the goods. The bailiff asked Mr Y where his belongings were. Mr Y explained that he did not have much when he lived in his previous property and had now lost everything. The bailiff said he would need to continue with the enforcement process unless there was proof the contents of the house were Mrs X’s. In the end Mrs X paid her son’s debt.
We found the bailiff was at fault in not properly considering who owned the property in the home. We could not know if Mrs X would have paid had the bailiff not acted in this way or if the bailiff might have found goods belonging to Mr Y to take instead. But we decided the council should pay Mrs X £150 for the time and trouble she had been put to and the uncertainty caused by the bailiff’s actions.
Mr X complained the council passed a debt of £5.03 to bailiffs and charged him £190 costs.
Mr X sold his property. He says he told the council of this; the council has no record of his call. The council sent a council tax bill, reminder and summons to Mr X’s last known address. Mr X had moved from this address. The council obtained a liability order for the full debt for the year, including court costs of £115. It passed this debt to the bailiffs, which included a further £75. The bailiffs also wrote to Mr X at his last known address.
The new owners of the property then told the council they had brought the property and the council adjusted Mr X’s bill, leaving £5.03 council tax and the costs, now £190, due. The bailiffs sent a text to Mr X to say he owed £195.03. Mr X then paid the debt.
Mr X complained about the costs. We found as the council and its bailiffs had followed the law and sent the relevant documents to Mr X’s last known address. They were not at fault and Mr X had properly incurred the costs of £190.
Other sources of information
There is a ‘trade’ body for private bailiff firms – the Civil Enforcement Association. It has a code of conduct a list of members on its website at www.civea.co.uk.
You can also obtain free advice from Citizens Advice - you can find the nearest branch by using its website at www.adviceguide.org.uk/england.htm
The National Debtline services include a helpline that provides free, confidential and independent advice on your rights and how to deal with debt problems, including information about bailiffs and council tax collection. You can contact the National Debtline free on: 0808 808 4000, Monday - Friday 9am - 8pm and Saturday 9.30am - 1pm, and obtain further information from its website www.nationaldebtline.org
Call the Housing Ombudsman Service on 0300 111 3000 or see their website at www.housing-ombudsman.org.uk
Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please phone 0300 061 0614.