Enforcement agents (bailiffs)

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.

If your complaint concerns the bailiffs’ actions in collecting council tax, business rates or traffic enforcement penalties then we can normally investigate your complaint. This is because the bailiff is acting on behalf of the council. However, we cannot investigate complaints about the actions of bailiffs in recovering other debt because the bailiff is acting directly for the courts.

If your complaint concerns a bailiff who is evicting you from your home, we also cannot investigate this. The bailiff will be acting for the court and complaints about eviction by a council or housing association are considered by the Housing Ombudsman Service.

In some cases you could take the matter to court and we might expect you to do so. 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 the bailiff has removed. However, if you have not begun legal action on the specific issue, we may choose to investigate.

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 respond to your complaint instead. You can complain to us once you have finished the bailiffs’ complaint procedure. We may accept complaints where the council or bailiff have taken too long to respond. We think twelve weeks for a response is reasonable. 

Usually, you should complain to us within 12 months of when you first knew about the problem. If you leave it any later, we may not be able to help. 

For more information on how to complain, please read our step by step process.

If you consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for?

We evaluate each complaint on its merits. We consider if the bailiffs did something wrong (as the bailiffs act on the council’s behalf); and whether the council did something wrong in the way it used the bailiff. We then consider if this caused you problems. Some  issues we could look at are whether:

  • there was an unreasonable delay in the council taking action
  • the bailiff followed the proper procedure
  • the bailiff used ‘threatening behaviour’ . We will 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 properly responded to a potentially vulnerable person
  • the bailiff charged the correct costs and fees.

What happens if the Ombudsman finds the council was at fault?

It depends on what went wrong and how that affected you. We aim to put you back in the position you have been had the fault not happened.

  • Where we find fault we often ask the council to make a meaningful apology. We may also ask the council to pay you a symbolic financial remedy for the injustice caused by the fault or for the time and trouble you were put to in making your complaint.
  • Where we find fault with the council’s procedures we will often recommend the council introduces changes so the same problem will not happen again. Similarly, if we find flaws in the bailiffs’ procedures, we may ask the council to work with the bailiff to prevent the fault occurring again.

Examples of some complaints we have considered

Mr X complained the council instructed a bailiff to recover his business rates debt. Mr X owns office space for which he must pay business rates. The rates should be paid monthly, but Mr X paid them intermittently. Because of this, the council told Mr X he needed to pay the outstanding amount for the 2022/2023 financial year. Mr X did not pay, so the council instructed bailiffs to recover the debt. After the bailiff contacted him, Mr X paid the 2022/2023 business rates but did not pay the bailiff’s fees. Mr X complained to the Ombudsman and during our investigation the bailiffs accepted it had calculated its fees incorrectly. It corrected the amount Mr X owed and apologised.
We concluded the council was at fault for the bailiffs’ failure to charge the correct fees. We found this caused Mr X frustration, which the bailiffs’ apology remedied. Mr X still needed to pay the corrected fees. The council was not at fault in how it pursued Mr X for recovery of the business rates.  

Miss J complained about the way the council pursued her for historic unpaid council tax amounting to around £2,500. Miss J accrued the council tax debt between 2008 and 2009. She then moved out of the council’s area and its attempts to recover the debt in 2009 failed. In April 2022, the council instructed bailiffs who wrote to Miss J warning that if she did not pay the debt, they would visit to seize her belongings. 
Miss J did not pay the debt, so the bailiffs visited her home. Miss J told us she accepted she owed the debt but was unhappy the council had decided to recover it after 13 years. We found the council was entitled to pursue the debt from 2008-2009. We found the bailiffs acted without fault in the actions they took to recover the debt. We did not uphold Miss J’s complaint.

Other sources of information

There is a ‘trade’ body for private bailiff firms – the Civil Enforcement Association. It has a code of conduct and 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.citizensadvice.org.uk

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.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

May 2024

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