When is a bailiff not a bailiff?

Recent Citizens Advice research among clients who “have a bailiff problem” sparked a debate here about how much people understand about bailiffs. 

These concerns were heightened by a tweet from a commercial debt adviser, which should know better, talking about debt collectors and bailiffs as if they were interchangeable terms.

They are not – and if debt advisers don’t know the difference, where does that leave ordinary people, whose life is complicated enough even before they fall into unmanageable debt?

So, a little light on the subject.

Firstly, who owns your debt? 

Debts are bought and sold by financial services companies in the same way as a lorry load of dented tins of baked beans.  If you have ever bought something from a discount outlet that was reduced because the packaging was damaged – that is exactly what can happen with debts if a credit company decides it wants to reduce its stock of debt and cut its losses.

Who is the debt collector?

The credit company to whom you owe money may have its own debt collection department, or it may employ a debt collection agency, or it may sell your debt to another company.  Wherever your debt ends up, you are still dealing with debt collectors. Not bailiffs. 

Debt collectors and debt collection agencies

Whoever he or she works for, a debt collection agent has no legal powers.  They operate principally by letter and by telephone and their job is to persuade you to pay the money you owe.  However frightening and threatening their letters and phone calls may appear to be, they can do nothing themselves other than try to persuade you to pay. 

They have no right to enter your home; if they ask if they can visit you to discuss a debt, you can just say no, and there is nothing they can do about it.  They cannot turn you out of your house, or seize your furniture or your car. 

There are legal processes which the person to whom you owe the money can use, but those must go via a court.  This is a formal process and takes quite a long time.  Ultimately, if the court orders you to pay and you ignore the court ruling, bailiffs may become involved.  But again, this is a long process will be very clearly set out in writing by the court and the bailiff company, and is an absolute last resort.


Bailiffs exist principally to collect money which is owed to the state or which you have been ordered to pay by a court.  So this covers outstanding taxes (including, importantly, your council tax), court fines, parking fines (the kind given by traffic wardens, not private land owners) or county court judgments. 

Bailiffs have very specific powers – click on the link at the end for a clear summary of what they can and cannot do. 

And now the confusing part – some large companies have debt collection agents and bailiffs.  You need to keep your wits about you...

So why are an increasing number of people having “a bailiff problem”?

The recent increase in activity by bailiffs is mainly because more and more councils are appointing bailiffs to collect outstanding council tax.  And this can be a rapid process – being just two months behind with your payments could trigger the debt being put in the hands of a firm of bailiffs. 

Why are councils doing this?

Their income from Government has been severely cut over the past few years, so they are looking for other ways to bring in funds.  Persuading people to pay their outstanding council tax is one of the methods they are using.

And why is this resulting parents being targeted?

No one easy answer to this, but it’s fair to say that there have been a lot of changes to the support that people with young families can claim in recent years.  If a mother with two small children is trying to boost the family income with short-term, part-time working, then the benefits that family is entitled to will have been changing almost from month to month. 

And for some reason, people forget that crucial T word – it is called council TAX for a reason.  You have to pay it by law – so it should be up there with the mortgage as one of the first bills to be paid.  People forget that at their peril.

For more information on bailiffs, click here.