How to deal with Bailiffs (also known as Enforcement Officers)

If you have been contacted by a bailiff (enforcement officer), we understand that you might be feeling worried. The bailiff debt collection process that you may have heard about could have given you some of those worries, but we’re here to set the record straight.

We’ve created a guide to dealing with bailiffs to provide you with facts on the process and hopefully leave you feeling less concerned.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

This content is intended to be an impartial guide about dealing with bailiffs. Lowell Financial Ltd do not provide financial advice. You can find out about organisations you can contact for guidance throughout the piece and on our debt help and support page.

What is a bailiff?

Bailiffs can refer to several types of people who fall under the banner of “bailiff” in the English and Welsh debt recovery process. Please note that going forward, where we refer to a bailiff in this guide, we are talking about Enforcement Officers, or High Court Enforcement Officers, and situations where they have been instructed to collect/enforce a judgment debt and any associated costs.

Bailiffs have a legal power to collect a debt following the issue of a Judgment in money claims, whether through payment or the sale of goods. They are there to look for ways to help you settle your debt in a reasonable and sensible way. This may involve a payment plan or ‘controlled goods agreement’, also known as a CGA, which is an agreement listing the goods you own that could be seized to pay off the debt, of which the bailiff is taking control, but these are not removed from the property at this time, subject to the agreed repayment plan being maintained.

What's the difference between bailiffs and doorstep debt collectors?

It’s important to note that bailiffs are not debt collectors. As we mentioned above, bailiffs have a legal power to enforce a judgment debt by collecting payments, seizing, and taking control of goods and, in some instances, can work on behalf of the Courts.

Debt collectors, on the other hand, work on behalf of a creditor, who is the firm owed the money or a debt collection agency like Lowell Financial. Their overall aim is to work with you to agree an affordable payment plan and start the process of repaying your judgment debt. Debt collectors don’t take control of possessions like a bailiff could. Debt collectors can ask you to make a payment agreement, but they do not enforce the debt; however, they can instruct bailiffs to enforce the debt on their behalf. 

Who sends bailiffs?

Bailiffs are instructed to recover debts where a judgment has been obtained against a debtor on behalf of the judgment creditor or their instructed solicitors. Bailiffs are certified by the court to collect debts which can include debts relating to council tax, child maintenance, unpaid VAT, and a number of other types of liabilities. The bailiffs that Lowell and their solicitors use are certified and authorised by the County Court or the High Court.

Most times, bailiffs may be instructed by a debt collector in relation to an outstanding County Court Judgment. This could be for a balance incurred through a utility provider, financial services, home shopping account, or telecommunications debt. For more information on County Court Judgments and how they can impact you, be sure to read our CCJ guide.

If you’re concerned about bailiffs visiting you, there are a number of independent organisations you can turn to for free financial advice regarding your current situation and potential next steps, such as StepChange and Citizens Advice.

What bailiffs can and can't do

We understand that bailiffs attending your property can be worrying or stressful. You may not be aware of your rights and the procedures that you need to follow. It helps to be informed with the correct information, so here’s an overview of what bailiffs can and can’t do.

Can bailiffs refuse a payment plan?

If a bailiff comes to your home, their priority is to speak to you and arrange payment of the judgment debt, whether this is payment in full or payments made by agreed instalments. If you’re unable to pay in full, they may ask if you can work out a payment plan.

They’ll try to work with you to make sure that the agreed payments are reasonable and work with your finances, but they only have limited powers regarding the period of time for payments. If they cannot offer you long enough to pay, they may direct you to the creditor’s solicitors to discuss whether a longer period of payment can be agreed upon.

If you’re struggling to manage your debt and finances, you can always access free and independent assistance from organisations like StepChange and the Money Advice Service.

What can bailiffs take?

Where the bailiff has been able to agree on an affordable payment plan with you, it may also be necessary to have a Controlled Goods Agreement (CGA) created. This starts with an inventory (a list) of saleable goods within the property, which then fall under the control of the court.

The items will remain in your home whilst you make payments, but if the terms of the CGA are breached, the bailiff may then return to take possession of the goods to be sold at auction to help towards repaying the outstanding debt.

Any goods which the bailiff takes must be of saleable quality and value, to ensure they are likely to raise sufficient funds to pay the outstanding debt. Bailiffs will not remove goods if they are unlikely to raise sufficient funds at auction to clear the outstanding debt plus the removal, storage, and auction fees.

You can find more in-depth advice about this at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or by visiting GOV UK’s guide to bailiff’s powers.

What is a controlled goods agreement?

When a bailiff visits, if you can’t afford to pay a judgment debt in full, they can make a ‘controlled goods agreement’ (CGA). A CGA means that you can keep all your possessions where they are, but you acknowledge that the bailiff is taking control of the items, and you must agree to not remove or dispose of the items on the CGA, nor to permit anyone else to do the same before the debt is paid in full, along with any enforcement costs.

You and the bailiff will then work out a reasonable payment plan that you can keep up with, so you can work to clear your debt with regular payments. The goods included in a CGA will only be removed and sold if the payment plan is broken. The bailiff may re-enter the premises to inspect the goods on the list or remove them for storage for sale.

If you’re arranging a CGA, it may be worth asking the bailiff to explain if there are any additional bailiff fees involved, as you will be liable to pay these as well as the judgment debt. 

What can't bailiffs take?

As a last resort, bailiffs could use some of your possessions to help clear your debt, but there are some things they won’t take. This includes:

  • Items that belong to other people, including vehicles under hire purchase agreements, vehicles used by disabled persons, or for one of the emergency services.
  • Items that belong to your children
  • Pets
  • Things that you need to do your job or study, including vehicles, tools, books, or computers, up to a total value of £1,350
  • Anything that you need to heat or light the house, or to keep it secure
  • Equipment you need for medical requirements, or anything you need to care for a child or elderly person
  • Tools of your trade

They'll also make sure you have everything you need for yourself and the people living in your house, or anything you need for basic domestic chores and care, including:

  • Beds and enough bedding for everyone in your home
  • A table and enough chairs for everyone in your home
  • A washing machine
  • A cooker or microwave
  • A fridge
  • A landline or mobile phone

Can bailiffs take my belongings for someone else’s debt?

Bailiffs can only take goods which belong to you or those that are jointly owned. For example, a bailiff cannot take goods which are proven to belong exclusively to your partner or someone else living at the property. It is your responsibility to provide this evidence to the bailiff.

If an inventory of items is being created for a controlled goods agreement, the bailiff will usually list items that belong to other people in the property. These are known as “third party goods” and are listed to make it clear that they have considered the item and have been given evidence that they are not to be seized.

If you own an item and it has been inventoried by mistake, just speak to the bailiff and show them proof of purchase or ownership.

Can bailiffs take my car?

Yes, it is possible that bailiffs could try take your car to clear an outstanding debt. However, there are some situations in which your vehicle cannot be seized, which we’ll explore further below.

Can bailiffs take my car if I need it for work?

Anything up to the value of £1,350 that is considered necessary for work is 'exempt’ from seizure, which could include your work vehicle.

For your car to be deemed ‘necessary for work’, it must be shown that you’re unable to do your job without it (e.g., a taxi). To prove this to a bailiff, you may be required to show documents such as order forms, invoices, and proof of employment.

Can bailiffs take a car on finance?

If you’re using a hire purchase, personal contract plan, or finance scheme to buy your car or vehicle, then your vehicle is still owned by the company you made the finance agreement with until you have made the final payment under such agreements.

This means that bailiffs cannot take it – just make sure you show the bailiff that the car is on finance and show evidence that you’re still paying for your vehicle. You can use the HPI check website to prove that you’re still paying for the vehicle. You may also need to inform the finance company if the vehicle is seized so they can take any necessary actions on their side.

When can bailiffs not take a car?

There are some other situations where bailiffs won’t be able to take your car, including either of the following:

  • You’ve got a valid disabled badge, or the car is clearly used by a disabled person.
  • It is your main home (e.g. campervans, houseboats, caravans)

Can bailiffs force entry?

Bailiffs can only enter your home if they are allowed in by the person there. If there is nobody there, they may attempt to enter if the door is left unlocked, but this is not common practice.

They can, however, force entry to collect goods to be sold to repay the debt where the terms of a Controlled Goods Agreement (CGA) have been breached, such as non-payment of agreed instalments. The bailiff can only carry out this action if they reasonably believe this is the place, or one of the places, where you usually live, or carry on a trade or business. The agent can enter the premises any day of the week between 6am and 9pm. 

Can bailiffs enter your house when you're not there?

The only way bailiffs could come into your home if you’re not there is if someone in your house lets them in, or if they can make ‘peaceable entry’ through an unlocked door. If the only people in your home are children under the age of 16, bailiffs won’t enter.

Can the police help bailiffs?

It is possible that the police may arrive with the bailiff. We understand that this can seem scary, but it’s important to know that they are there for your security.

This is because, in extremely rare circumstances, the police may have to step in should things become aggressive or threatening, and both you and the bailiff could potentially be arrested.

There are also a few situations in which the police will assist a bailiff in order to collect a debt, including:

  • A bailiff is there to enforce a High Court writ of control
  • A bailiff has successfully applied for a warrant to force entry and the court have agreed for the police to attend 

It’s important to note that you can’t be arrested for refusing to let a bailiff enter your home. However, if they’ve already entered previously and made a list of goods under a CGA, you could risk being arrested for any of the following:

  • Hiding goods
  • Removing goods
  • Purposefully ruining goods
  • Preventing bailiffs from taking goods

How many times can a bailiff visit?

After the initial letter telling you that a bailiff will be visiting, they may come an unlimited number of times. They may also attempt to contact you by phone if they have your contact details. If you intentionally obstruct an enforcement agent enforcing a High Court writ or interfere with controlled goods under a CGA without unlawful excuse, you could face imprisonment for up to 51 weeks, a fine of up to £2,500 on the standard scale, or both.

How should I deal with bailiffs?

Bailiffs are there to try and help you arrange payment for your judgment debt in a way that works for you and make sure that everyone involved is satisfied. We understand that you might have questions about how to deal with bailiffs, so here are a few answers to the most common questions we receive about dealing with bailiffs.

How do I stop bailiffs coming to my property?

Bailiffs are there to help you settle your judgment debt. The best way to stop a bailiff from having to visit your property is to speak to the company that owns your debt, or their solicitors, as soon as possible to discuss your circumstances.

Legal action is always a final measure, and even if there is legal action by a firm of solicitors, it’s not a guarantee that bailiffs will be sent, but the chances increase the longer you leave a debt unpaid or refuse to engage with the creditor or their solicitors.

If a bailiff’s visit has been requested, you can apply for the warrant to be suspended. You would need to contact the court regarding this, or seek independent legal advice.

What happens if I ignore a bailiff?

We understand that having bailiffs visit may make you feel nervous, and you might not know what to do. You may even think it’s best to ignore them, but not letting them in or speaking to them could make things worse.

For instance, if you decide to ignore a bailiff, they may decide to seize things from the outside of your home, such as your car. Alternatively, they may add extra fees to your current judgment debt, meaning that you owe even more money than before.

The best way to avoid this situation is to engage with your creditor, which is the company that you owe money to, or their solicitors when you receive contact from them. This is so that a suitable payment arrangement can be put into place.

If you’re concerned about a bailiff’s identity and want to verify who they are before talking to them, you can request to see a proof of identity and ask for other relevant information like a contact number or a detailed breakdown of your case.

How to complain about a bailiff

If you feel as though a bailiff has treated you poorly or isn’t following the correct procedure, you can make a complaint.

To file a complaint, you’ll need to reach out to your creditor, the bailiff’s company, as well as the local court that the bailiff has been authorised by. You can do this either in writing or using a complaint form, which you can find on the GOV UK website. To find out which court to make a complaint to, you can use GOV UK’s court finder.

For more information, Citizens Advice has a dedicated guide on complaining about bailiffs.

Can Lowell send bailiffs?

If you’re working with Lowell to manage your debt and make payments on your agreed payment plan, you won’t need to worry about bailiffs. But if you don’t make payments to your Lowell account and don’t get in touch to tell us why or to discuss your circumstances, your account may be passed to our solicitors.

Our solicitors will then also try to get in touch with you before taking further action. If you still don’t contact us to arrange a payment plan, it’s possible that you might face enforcement action, which could include sending bailiffs to your home.

Will Lowell come to my home?

At Lowell, we’ll only pass on a debt to our solicitors for potential legal action, as a last resort, if we haven’t been able to agree a suitable solution with you. We will always attempt to contact you multiple times through different methods available, such as calls, text messages, emails, and letters, before we instruct our solicitors.

Our customers come first, and we’ll always offer you time to resolve the matter before any further action is taken. That’s why it’s important to get in touch when you first hear from us or our solicitors.

If we do instruct our solicitors to recover the outstanding debt, they will attempt to contact you to understand your circumstances and agree a suitable arrangement with you to avoid things going further. To learn more about this, you can take a look at our legal process FAQ section.

We genuinely want to work together with you and support you on your journey to becoming debt-free with Lowell. Our team are always here to listen and support you no matter your situation, so please don’t be concerned about getting in touch, even if you don’t feel like you’re able to pay at the moment.

Here at Lowell, we focus on setting up sustainable payment plans that are based on your specific circumstances and have an easy-to-use online portal where you can manage your account and payments.

Alternatively, if you’d rather seek independent advice elsewhere, there are plenty of companies who can offer you free and impartial advice such as Money Advice Service or StepChange.

If you found this guide helpful and are interested in more debt and finance-related content, you can head over to our Debt Guidance Hub.


First Published: 21st April, 2021

Last Updated: 19th June 2024