Bailiff break-in threat over credit card debtsNew law could put vulnerable at risk

05 March 2007

 

Signing a credit card slip

Bailiffs could soon break into homes to seize belongings simply to enforce credit card debts, a charity warned today.

Citizens Advice said vulnerable people would be at greater risk from rogue enforcers as a result of new legislation that could lead to abuse of the system on an 'unprecedented' scale.

Under the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill - which will receive its second Commons reading today - all bailiffs will be given the power to enter domestic premises and enforce consumer credit debts, including credit card bills.

At present, only certain enforcement officers - notably those enforcing magistrates court fines - have these powers.

Clear safeguards

Citizens Advice is calling on the government to include in the Bill clear safeguards to ensure that forced entry is only used as a last resort.

In addition, it should only be employed where it can be shown that the debtor is not a vulnerable person and that non-payment is the result of willful or culpable neglect.

The charity is also pressing for independent regulation of bailiffs to be included in the proposed legislation.

Citizens Advice said evidence from its network of bureaux revealed that many private debt enforcers act almost as a law unto themselves.

Intimidation and harassment

Intimidation, harassment and excessive fee-charging by bailiffs are commonplace, it added, driving people further into poverty and debt.

Analysis of 500 cases showed that almost two-thirds of bailiffs were guilty of harassment or intimidation, while 40 per cent misrepresented their powers of entry.

Almost half levied unfair fees and a quarter threatened the debtor with imprisonment.

In half of these cases - in which bailiffs had either broken the law or their own code of conduct - the victim was vulnerable, Citizens Advice said.

Violence

David Harker, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: 'Our evidence over many years shows that bailiffs have an appalling track record of abusing their existing powers against vulnerable people.

'They are often abusive and aggressive and use threats of violence and prison to pressurise people into paying lump sums they cannot afford.'

He added: 'Bailiff law is complex, confusing and long overdue for reform. This Bill should have been the perfect opportunity to modernise the law and end abuse once and for all.

'Instead it gives bailiffs greater powers without any proper regulation - a recipe for abuse on an unprecedented scale. It is a scandal and a disgrace that six years after the government made a commitment to bring in independent regulation, the misery and abuse continues.'

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