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.
Change in the law - April 2014
On 6 April 2014 the law on how bailiffs operate underwent a major change. All enforcement agents (as bailiffs are now called) operate under the same legislation on ‘taking control of goods’ regardless of the type of debt they collect. Any of our decisions made or advice given before April 2014 may not be relevant to the new process.
This fact sheet uses the old term ‘bailiff’ as it is more commonly used than ‘enforcement agent’.
I have a complaint against a bailiff. Can the Ombudsman help me?
In some cases, yes – where the bailiff is employed by 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 the Ombudsman could normally investigate your complaint.
However, you could take the matter to court and in some cases the Ombudsman may expect you to use this remedy.This is because the courts can decide whether or not a bailiff's costs or actions are either excessive or unreasonable (such as the removal of too many goods, or the making of undue threats). Disputes about ownership of goods removed should also be resolved in court. And, the Ombudsman cannot consider a complaint decided by a court of law, including the issue of a warrant of execution or the recoverable sums involved.
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 the matter. This is because, since 1 April 2013, the actions of a council as a domestic landlord are no longer considered by us, but can be 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?
Each complaint to the Ombudsman is considered on its merits. We consider whether the bailiffs did something wrong (and this is the council’s responsibility because the bailiffs were 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 of the issues we could look at are whether or not:
- 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 costs and fees have been properly in accordance with the Fee Regulations.
What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the council was at fault?
This depends on the nature of the fault and what impact this has on you. If the effect on you is harmful we will recommend that the council takes steps to reduce the effects where possible.
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.
In some cases we may also ask the council to pay compensation 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
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. www.civea.co.uk.
You can also obtain free advice from Citizens Advice - you can find the nearest branch by using its 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 - 9pm 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.