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Out and about with the bailiffs

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X-Ray production team X-Ray production team | 19:31 UK time, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

As purse strings tighten, lenders are calling in their debts. The latest figures show that county court judgements, which are issued against people if they fail to make payments on a loan or credit card for example, rose by over 17% compared to the same period in 2007.

What happens when debts lead to a visit from the bailiffs? X-Ray finds out.

Martin Leyshon is a company director whose company employs qualified bailiffs throughout England and Wales. They collect debt on behalf of the Court Service. Martin told us that in 2008 they saw nearly a 50% rise in the number of debtors they deal with.

According to Martin, "People are spreading their money a bit too thinly to try and make ends meet, and then maybe not leaving enough money to pay all the bills, so those unpaid bills then end up being pursued through the court system."

Being pursued for a debt can be incredibly stressful, and many people are unclear about the difference between a debt collector and a bailiff. If you incur a debt you can't pay then it's likely that the company you owe money to will hand that debt over to a debt collection agency to pursue.

"The letters you get from an agency can seem very threatening, but it's worth remembering they have no powers to enter your home and collect the debt - they're not bailiffs. But, if you do nothing at this stage, then your case can be taken to the courts and that's when a bailiff can become involved."

Jessie hit the streets with Gerald Anderson who's an Assistant High Court Enforcement Officer - in other words, a bailiff. Gerald told us he does his best to help his clients:

"I'm not there to be the heavy bailiff, I'm there to hopefully help them out of a sticky situation when they are in debt. My aim is not to pressurise them into payment, my aim is to try and get a payment proposal from them that they can afford. I'll always speak to people how I expect to be spoken to."

But bailiffs have always had a bad press. Whilst the industry's doing it's best to clean up it's act, there's still suspicion, and confusion as to what powers a bailiff has. And no wonder, as different bailiffs have different powers.

Certificated bailiffs collect unpaid council tax, magistrate court fines, and road traffic debt. County court bailiffs can recoup unpaid debts up to £5000 and all debt regulated by the consumer credit act.

At the top of the chain are High Court enforcement officers who can pursue any unregulated debt over £600. All bailiffs however have the power to seize and sell your goods to cover the debt you owe.

Martin explained what happens when his business receives instructions from the court to pursue a debt. When his business receives a warrant from the court it instructs the bailiff to collect the debt in full or to remove the persons goods and chattels.

According to Martin the bailiffs he employs would prefer to collect the money in full on the first visit, but in reality, it's generally not possible. Instead, the bailiff will establish what assets the debtor has and secure the debt on goods that can be taken from your possession.

However, the bailiff will usually leave the assets in the possession of the owner, although, in the eyes of the law, these goods are in the custody of the law. The bailiff would then make a payment proposal to the creditor on behalf of the debtor, - it's up to the creditor if they chose to accept this proposal.

There are certain goods which can't be secured against a debt and that includes those which are necessary for day to day living, such as bedding, clothing or anything used for a business purpose. Bailiffs also can't take goods that are on lease or hired.

Jessie asked Martin what his advice is for anyone whose debts are serious enough to warrant a visit from a bailiff. He told her:

"When it gets to us, it's quite serious. So my advice is don't ignore us, talk to us. We are humans. Don't be ashamed about it.

"There are lots of people in this country who are in debt, you're not on your own. And the more communication you have with us, the better it's going to be for you."

More information on what Bailiffs can and can't do can be found at: http://www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk/courtfinder/forms/ex345.pdf

And if you need advice about a visit from a bailiff: http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/index/d_bailiffs.pdf

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