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. 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 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 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.
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 bailiffs properly responded to a potentially vulnerable person
- 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
We found the bailiff was at fault for failing to show Mr X’s parents the warrant when requested. We decided this meant the bailiff had not properly carried out the enforcement stage of the debt recovery and therefore recommended the council should refund the £235 and apologise.
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.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.