dr. Naomi Spiers was sleeping from a night shift when there was a loud banging on the door. She crawled under the covers, but the knocking didn’t stop.
When she replied, her visitor – wearing a face mask and bulletproof vest – demanded £425. He held out a ticket machine for her to pay. “I was like, ‘What the hell?’ He said, ‘Is that your car? I put a clamp on it.’”
Spiers’s original offense was late payment of a £2.50 toll. She worked night shifts in the emergency room and said she missed the payment deadline the following day by midnight and that the debt had been transferred to a private law enforcement company.
She asked if she could arrange a payment arrangement, but claims the bailiff insisted she pay on the spot. “He said, ‘You only have a few minutes before the tow truck comes, and then it costs another £800,'” Spiers said. The company is disputing its account.
She needed her car to go to work that evening, so she paid the £425. ‘I felt so attacked and the only way to get him out was to pay. It felt like bullying,” she said. “When he left, I was incredibly angry and shocked. It was like, ‘Pay, pay, pay, pay, otherwise it will be tripled’.”
The 36-year-old, from south-east London, is one of a growing number of Britons being visited by bailiffs, who are widely used by government agencies to get money back – sometimes for the most minor offences. There are limits to the fees bailiffs can charge, but in extreme cases, the amount can be hundreds of pounds more than the amount originally owed. In Spiers’ case, the bailiff alleged that she had been sent multiple letters, including the original fine order and subsequent execution reminders. But Spiers says she only received one letter and it was retroactive. She tried to pay the £180 fine, but when she called the premium helpline during her lunch break, she couldn’t get through.
By the time she was confronted by a bailiff at her door, the fee was 170 times the original toll. “It’s a daylight robbery,” she said.
Before the pandemic, the number of bailiffs had increased rapidly, with about 3 million civil enforcement cases in 2019, according to the Center for Social Justice – an increase of more than 600,000 in five years.
During the initial lockdown, the government suspended bailiffs’ visits, but they were resumed later that year, with members of the Civil Enforcement Association making more than 1.5 million visits between September 2020 and April 2021.
Charities have warned that the number of cases involving bailiffs will increase as the rising cost of living pushes households into debt. New figures suggest they are already starting to rise, with Citizens Advice receiving 2,704 requests for bailiffs’ assistance last month, compared to 1,884 in December.
Most of the cases Citizens Advice hears about involve back taxes, but bailiffs — also widely used by energy and utility companies — are increasingly called in for minor offenses such as parking fines, according to the Money Advice Trust.
For those on the receiving end, it can be traumatizing and humiliating. In a case registered earlier this year by the charity StepChange, a recently widowed woman was “approached two to three times a day by bailiffs for payment of delinquent city taxes”. “Client suffers from serious psychological problems and it causes her more stress,” the helpline advisers wrote in their notes.
In another case, a woman whose partner was undergoing chemotherapy was visited in the dark by bailiffs “banging loudly on the door and yelling ‘you don’t pay your council tax'”.
Faith Gillin, 53, of Northampton, said she was “incredibly worried” after a bailiff’s visit in October. For the mother of one, there had been a knock at six o’clock one dark morning. “I came down in my dressing gown and there was a big guy standing there. He said, ‘Remember driving on a bus lane in April?’”
She later realized that she had forgotten to update her address with the DVLA, as required, and a fine sent to her old address had gone unpaid. But the council had not contacted her at her new address, despite registering the details, she says, instead passing the blame on to an enforcement company.
While Gillin “had no problem” with the £440 fine, she thinks “Having someone knock on your door at 6am for going down a bus lane is ridiculous”. “I was shocked by it for a few weeks. It disturbed me so much that when my mailman knocked on the door, I wouldn’t answer,” she said.
She accused municipalities of violating their duty of care by transferring smaller debts to bailiffs, which she says can have serious consequences for people’s mental health. “You use a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” she said.
The Civil Enforcement Association said the industry is “committed to raising standards” and that there is “no evidence of systemic problems with the use of enforcers”. It added that complaints were being thoroughly investigated and bailiffs were helping to recover hundreds of millions of pounds for taxpayers.
Improvements have been made in recent years. In 2014, the government issued guidelines stating that bailiffs must not act threateningly or intentionally embarrassing, pressure debtors to make unreasonable offers of payment, and withdraw from cases where the person is considered vulnerable.
And later this year, after years of campaigning, a new independent body to oversee bailiffs will be established. The exact mandate of the Enforcement Conduct Board has yet to be determined, but it is expected to investigate complaints and fine companies for bad practices, and has been hailed by the industry as a “landmark reform”.
Meanwhile, councils and government agencies say the use of bailiffs is proportionate. Highways England said it would only engage bailiffs if people had not responded to a fine. It said it was not required to visit customers in person before referring cases, and that bailiffs were given extensive checks and training. The Local Government Association said bailiffs should only be a “last resort”.
But charities and campaigners want further reforms – including legal regulation to hold bailiffs accountable – and say a more compassionate approach is needed.
Concerns have been raised about the employment model used by most bailiffs – where agents are self-employed workers who earn commission based on their caseload, rather than employees with a salary. An advertisement for a major bailiff’s firm – which describes those with military, police or HMP prison backgrounds as desirable candidates – offered “unlimited commission” with “realistic earnings between £35k and £65k”.
Ed McDonagh, policy officer at StepChange, said the model caused “a lot of bad practice.” “Often the bailiffs’ aggressive practices will force people to just pay them off: they rely on expensive loans, friends and family or loan sharks to get these people off their backs, sending them into this debt spiral. he added.
Jane Tully, of the Money Advice Trust, said that while there has been a “modest improvement” in the industry, the charity still heard about “bad practices” including bailiffs “refusing affordable payment offers, misrepresenting their powers or making threats use”. language and disregarding people’s circumstances, even in cases where they are particularly vulnerable”. “We need to see more action to stop people from falling behind in the first place, and to make sure those who do are treated fairly,” she said.
Some municipalities opt for a different approach. Since 2017, Hammersmith and Fulham have passed a process it calls “ethical debt collection”. Instead of passing on debts to outside enforcers, it handles them itself.
The decision was fueled by concerns about the sector and the need to protect residents. Two years earlier, Jerome Rogers, a courier who transported blood between hospitals in Croydon, had taken his own life after demanding £1,019 from bailiffs who detained his vehicle. The 20-year-old had been given two traffic fines of £65, but additional costs increased the compensation by more than £800.
In extreme cases of persistent default, the board can still sue the person and obtain a liability warrant for the debt. But before that, it is opting for early intervention, “working constructively with families struggling to pay,” contacting them in various ways, and “working closely with the advisory industry.”
In the first year after the start of the scheme, the municipality collected 96.76% of all municipal taxes owed, an improvement compared to previous years.
“We don’t want to send bailiffs to the door,” said Councilor Maxwell Schmid, cabinet minister for finance, the scheme’s pioneer.
“But beyond the moral side of this, you actually run the risk of putting families in more desperate situations and homelessness. Who collects the housing bill?
“If people are pushed further into debt, the entire public sector will eventually pick up the pieces.”