Bailiffs & debt collection

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1 Bailiffs & debt collection Contents Should you be seeking advice on debt now? 3 Which debts are the most important? 3 Ten steps to sorting out your debts 5 Can I stop a bailiff from coming into my home? 6 Council Tax what to do if the bailiffs call 7 Bailiffs charges what they can add to your debt 8 Complaining about council bailiffs 9 Mortgage arrears key steps 10 Rent arrears key steps 11 Jargon buster 12 Getting help with debt 13 The day the bailiffs came to call: Christine s story I am a single parent You are advised to let us in. I was starting to cry, and told with two children, aged It s only fair to tell you that if you the bailiffs to clear off. Off they two and four. It all don t, we can get the police went, but they said they d be started about five weeks ago. to help us break in if you won t back with a van to take away my It was about 11 in the morning co-operate. things. They warned me that they when there was a loud knock at I started to panic. I did not might have to break in, and my front door. I was worried who want to break the law, and the because I was making them it might be, because I was on my own with the kids. I eventually opened the door, and was faced by two men. One of them said: We are bailiffs from the council. We are here because you owe 520 council tax from last year. We want to come in to talk about the debt, and see how you will pay. I had read somewhere that it was a mistake to let bailiffs into your home. I told them I would rather talk about it on the doorstep. They clearly didn t like this. The other one said: thought of people breaking in and the police coming around was terrible. I told them I was very sorry about the arrears. I explained that my husband had left our home two weeks before, and he always took care of the council tax. I had no idea whether there was money to pay. I wondered if I should I try to borrow the money, and who I could go to for a quick loan. I was just telling them that I was waiting to hear about my claim for Income Support when my sister arrived. She could see come back, they would add even more to my debt. I went to my local advice agency the next day. I had to wait a while to be seen, but it was worth it. They wrote letters to the council and the bailiffs. After a few letters and phone calls, the council agreed to take small amounts from my Income Support to pay off the debt. I don t open the door to people I don t know anymore. bailiffs

2 Lessons from Christine s story The key thing to remember is that you should not let bailiffs into your home unless you don t mind that they may take your belongings to pay the debt you may owe. Bailiffs can break in only if they have been allowed peaceable entry on an earlier visit (which means either you let them in, or they came in through an open door or window). However, there are other points from Christine s experience which you should remember in case you have bailiffs at your door. The police don t chase debts. Debts aren t usually a criminal matter, which is what the police deal with. However, the police may be called by anybody (including you) if there is likely to be a breach of the peace (a fight or violent disturbance, for example), or other crime. You may want to call the police if there is going to be a physical struggle at the front door, or if someone is threatening violence. Sometimes bailiffs suggest (or say) that the police are on hand to help them break into your home to take your belongings. But don t feel intimidated by them: the police don t normally come when bailiffs visit they will only come if someone calls because there is a serious disturbance. Christine thought about borrowing money to pay her debt, but it is never a good idea to get into more debt to pay an old bill especially if, like Christine, you have no wages. She might have resorted to a back street lender, or one of those companies that say they don t ask questions before lending. These sorts of lenders usually charge huge rates of interest, which will just increase the size of your debt. It s far better to get proper money advice and support which you can get for free. Christine s husband, who had left her, was equally responsible for the council tax arrears. She could have explained this to the council, so they could chase him for his share of the debt. If you have debts from household bills (such as phone, gas or electricity bills), you should tell the company if someone else is also responsible for them, even if they no longer live with you. People on benefits, such as Income Support or incomebased Jobseeker s Allowance normally have very little money to pay off debts. So there is a system which means that small, fixed amounts of money can be taken from certain benefits to repay council tax debts. Don t feel you have to sort everything out yourself! Your local advice agency can often get a better result for you, because they know the law, and will not be intimidated by false threats from bailiffs. Remember that a bailiff s main aim is to get you to pay your debt quickly, not to break into your home. They are not interested in your long-term finances, and may not worry too much if you have to borrow to pay them. Dealing with debt When you can t juggle the bills and the weekly shop, and your heart sinks when you hear the mail come through the letterbox, it can be very tempting to put unopened bills in a drawer (or straight in the bin!). You might be able to ignore threatening letters from the people you owe money to, but it feels much harder to ignore a bailiff knocking on your door, demanding to be let in. This leaflet explains what happens if you run into problems with debt, and what steps you can take to sort it out. We also look at what to do if the bailiffs turn up at your home, and what you need to know: when you have to let them in (and when you don t), and what they are allowed to charge you for. 2 Bailiffs & debt collection

3 Should you be seeking advice on debt now? People react to debt problems in different ways. For some, the stress of debts can make them feel depressed or ill. Others seem unaffected. In the same way, some people will try to sort the problem out themselves, while others don t have the confidence to take on creditors the people they owe money to. It is usually a good idea to consult a money advice expert at some point. They can tell you the best way to deal with creditors, and they can also tell you how to make the most of your income, not matter how little you have. Increasingly, advice agencies are happy to advise you about how to help yourself deal with debt problems, which is probably best in the long run. But in emergency or urgent situations, a money adviser might have to deal direct with your creditors, the bailiffs or the courts. Some people put off getting money advice, because it s hard to admit that things are going wrong. Are you one of those people? Have a look at the statements listed right. If any of them describe how you are right now, it might also be a good idea to seek help right now I dread the postman coming I feel unable to tell loved ones or friends about my debts I am too worried to open the letters All my mates are in debt it s normal! I sometimes use the rent money to have fun When I hear the door knock I think of bailiffs I seem to go into an overdraft about 15 seconds after I get paid! I am finding that my money worries are affecting my sleep I am tempted by all the adverts for consolidation loans I don t seem to have enough money to buy the clothes we really need I can t see any point in making plans that might involve spending money I dread getting the school letter asking for money to pay for trips I am so familiar with county court judgements that I call them CCJs I often think about the prospect of losing my home The only thing that can rescue me is the lotto! It s not a full list, but you get the idea! If in doubt, get advice now! Which debts are the most important? You re behind on the gas bill, you ve got council tax arrears, and you still owe money to the catalogue how do you put debts in order and pay the most important ones first? Whose debt is it? If you are behind with bills, it s worth checking first whether you are responsible ( liable ) for the debt. If you are liable for a bill, it means enforcement action can be taken against you to recover the debt. In most cases the liable person s name will be on the bill. However, in some cases it s not so simple. For example: Husbands and wives are not normally liable for each other s bills. You may be liable for the cost of gas or electricity you have used, even though your name is not on the bill. Some credit agreements are not enforceable if they are very unfair. For example, if there are hidden terms where you did not have the chance to read all of a contract, or unequal cancellation terms, or the non return of prepayments. Its worth checking with your council s trading standards department if you think your agreement was unfair. You may also need to get special advice if this is the case. Many debts expire after six years (or 12 years for a mortgage). Credit agreements are not enforceable against people under 18, even if the person has lied about their age to get credit. Debts normally die with the debtor, so surviving partners and relatives are not liable. However, the people owed money may make a claim on the person s estate (the money and possessions they have left behind). Bailiffs & debt collection 3

4 Priority debts The most important debts are called priority debts. These are ones that can cause you serious problems if you do not deal with them quickly. Priority debts include: Rent or mortgage If you do not pay them, you could lose your home. Loans secured on your home If you don t keep up the payments, you could lose your home. Council tax If you do not pay, you could end up with a bailiffs visit, which will increase the amount you owe, and could mean your belongings are taken away to pay the debt. Gas and electricity bills If you don t pay your bills, you could be disconnected. TV Licence If you refuse to pay, you could be fined or even sent to prison. If you have problems paying any priority debt, take action now. You can contact the people you owe money to (called creditors ) at any time and offer to pay some money even if you cannot pay all you owe. The sooner you do it, the better. Contact your local advice centre or National Debtline for more information. Non-priority debts Other debts are called non-priority debts. You should deal with these after you have dealt with any priority debts, because the result of not paying them is less serious. Creditors can take you to the county court (which is different from the criminal court). This court will look at how much you can afford to pay towards your debt. As long as you keep to the payments that the court then orders, the creditors can t take any further action against you. Non-priority debts include: credit cards and store cards; water debts; book clubs and catalogue orders; gym and health club memberships; and unsecured loans. With these type of debts, you can write to the creditors explaining your situation. For example, if you are struggling to pay because you are on a low income, you can ask them not to take any court action against you, and to stop adding interest or any other charges to your account. You should also offer to make small payments but offer only offer what you can afford, even if it is as little as 1 a month. What county court action can mean Although county court action is less drastic than the effects of not paying a priority debt, you should still avoid it at all costs for several reasons: receiving a court summons is unpleasant and stressful; legal action will normally lead to extra costs for you, such as court fees; court action can lead to bailiffs being called in to get the money you owe (which will increase the amount), or possibly court orders to make deductions from your wages, for example; and you can end up with a bad credit reference. All is not lost! remember these key facts about debts 1 In the great majority of cases, it is never too late to do something positive to improve your situation. Positive action can range from negotiating a manageable repayment scheme (possibly interest free, or for a limited time), through to simply being prepared to deal with bailiffs who may come to your door. Organising all the debt letters into correct piles and filing them into a ring binder, is also a positive step, because it can help you to take action. 2 In most cases, creditors are able to consider a wide range of options for how you could pay off the debt. Don t be put off by comments like we have to collect the debt by the end of next week. Get advice and support now! 4 Bailiffs & debt collection

5 Ten steps to sorting out your debts It's easy to feel overwhelmed by debts especially if everyone you owe is demanding their money at the same time. But there is a way through it. Follow these steps to take control of your money. 1 Don t panic! No matter how desperate things seem, there are ways to manage your debts. If you feel totally swamped, and don t know what to do, go to an advice agency. But there are some things you can do yourself. 2 Check you actually owe the money. Make sure the bill isn t for someone else someone who used to live at your address, for example. 3 Are the amounts they claim you owe correct? Check their sums, and check that the people asking for money received all the payments you ve made. 4 Prioritise the debts. Some types of debt need sorting first, because of what can happen to you if you don t pay them see Which debts are the most important?, page 3, for more about this. 5 Do the firefighting. This means take steps to stop creditors (the people you owe money to) from taking immediate action against you. Firefighting action gives you a chance to work out plans to pay off your debts. You may need to make emergency phone calls if a creditor has threatened, or is taking, legal action against you. When you make the call, the creditor may agree to hold action for a certain period of time, to allow you to work out a repayment offer, or give time for you to take money advice. This is sometimes called a holding agreement. Back up any holding agreements with a letter, fax or . Get advice immediately if the firefighting fails. 6 Maximise your income. Check that you are receiving all the benefits you are entitled to. There are many types of benefit you can get depending on your circumstances, including Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit, Tax Credits (if you are working or if you have children), disability benefits, Income Support or incomebased Jobseeker s Allowance. An advice agency should be able to tell you which ones you might be able to apply for. 7 Draft a financial statement. This means working out your regular income and reasonable outgoings (spending), without taking into account debt payments. It s best to allow a modest figure for extras and emergencies. Creditors aren t very sympathetic about costs for cigarettes, socialising, cable TV, and high allowances for, for example, phone calls and food for pets. Calculate your disposable income the amount of money you have left over to offer creditors, after your basic needs have been paid for. If the figure turns out to be zero, don t panic but get advice. 8 Negotiate with creditors. Once you have worked out your disposable income figure, you can work out how much of offer each creditor. The priority debts come first, and you need to think about what could happen if you can t reach an agreement with each creditor. You can be tougher with the non-priority creditors. Try going for interest-free arrangements wherever possible. Remember not to make promises you cannot keep. 9 Put all agreements in writing. If your disposable income figure isn t enough to cover the priority debts, get advice straight away. It is sometimes possible to get non priority creditors to agree to no payments for a certain period. A skilful debt adviser may even be able to get some debts written off entirely, if they can show the creditor there is no real chance of you being able to pay off the debt. But don t build your hopes up not surprisingly, creditors are extremely reluctant to do this, and they are under no legal requirement to agree. 10 Check your payment progress from time to time. If your income drops, review your payments, but write to the creditors before you change how much you pay them. If your income increases, consider increasing payments, so that you ll be debt-free quicker. Beware of anybody who wants to charge you for debt advice. There is a lot of good advice and advocacy out there for free, so you should not have to pay. Does the advice provider you are thinking about using have an official quality mark from the Community Legal Service? Bailiffs & debt collection 5

6 Can I stop a bailiff from coming into my home? Yes! Bailiffs have no more power to come into your home uninvited than the man who lives across the road. Bailiffs have the power to come into your home and take your belongings only if they have already obtained what s called peaceful entry. This basically means coming into your home without using force, including: being invited in by a responsible adult; climbing through a window that is open; or opening a door to come in. But it does not include: being asked in by a young child; breaking windows, doors or locks; or pushing past people to get inside. But just because bailiffs can t get in your house, it doesn t mean they cannot get your belongings for example, if you have a car parked on the street, they may go for that (as long as they know it belongs to you). If bailiffs do call, it s best to be polite but know your rights. Here s what do: Don t get too alarmed! Not all bailiffs will give you a hard time, or act in a threatening way. Many will be fair and polite to you. Unfortunately, you do need to guard against the bad and you never know which type will turn up at your door. Get debt advice immediately you get into debt, so know your rights if the bailiff calls. This will help you deal with the situation if it actually happens. If you think bailiffs will be coming, ask an advice agency to give you a letter you can show the bailiffs so they know you are getting expert advice. The letter may say that the agency has advised you not to let the bailiffs in. You might feel safer passing the letter to the bailiffs through the mailbox, rather than opening the door. Tell everyone at your home to that bailiffs might be calling, and that they should check who before answering a knock at the door. Lock windows and doors to stop bailiffs making peaceful entry. If they need to show you ID, they can pass it through the letter box. It s up to you whether you come to an arrangement with the bailiff to pay. Get advice before agreeing to anything, unless you are sure you want to proceed. Call the police if the bailiffs are threatening or very aggressive. If you can, make sure there is someone else at your home as a witness when the bailiffs come. This may help any bad bailiffs behave properly. If you have a camcorder handy, you can take a film of the bailiff s visit. It might make any bad bailiffs behave properly but they will also know you have a camcorder, which they may like to get their hands on, to help clear your debt! If you ve borrowed the camcorder, make this clear but some proof that it belongs to someone else will help. If you think bailiffs have broken the rules or treated you badly when they visited you, consult an advice agency. See Complaining about council bailiffs, page 9, for more about what action to take. If the bailiffs don t get the money from you to pay your debt, or don t get your belongings to sell to pay it, the debt will normally pass back to the creditor for further action. For example, in council tax cases, the debt may be returned to the council, for it to decide on further action. If you owe money to a credit card company, it may go back to them to deal with. Whoever the money is owed to, the creditor can usually take other action to recover the debt. For example, they may be able to get an attachment of earnings order to get deductions from your wages (if you are working). With council tax, you could be sent to prison if you simply refuse to pay. The important message is don t ignore the debt, even though the bailiffs have gone. Seek advice now! 6 Bailiffs & debt collection

7 Council Tax what to do if the bailiffs call Council tax is one of those bills some people put off paying. But if you don t pay, there s a good chance you ll end up paying even more money in the long run. You have to pay your council tax debt in advance. But you should check that you are not paying too much. Check that you are receiving discounts on council tax because, for example: you live on your own, or you are the only adult in your home; you are on a low income and receiving certain benefits; or you have a disability. What if I don t pay? If you fall behind with your payments, you lose the right to pay by instalments, and you must pay the whole amount you owe. The next step is that the council will apply for a liability order from the magistrate s court, which allows them to take action to get the money you owe. If the court grants the liability order, the council can: use bailiffs to try to seize your goods; if you are working, tell your employer to take money from your wages to pay off the debt; or if you receive Income Support or income-based Jobseeker s Allowance, tell the benefit office to take money from your benefits. If none of these work, the council can apply to the court for an order to have you put in prison. The court will agree to this only if it believes you have deliberately not paid. Few people go to prison, although if things get to this stage, you will need urgent advice. The court can remit (wipe out) the debt at this stage, but you cannot rely on this happening. What if I get a letter from the bailiffs? If you receive a letter from the bailiffs, call the council tax department and write it a letter. Ask the council to take the debt back from the bailiffs and make an offer to pay the council quickly. Send a copy of your letter to the bailiffs. You should also send a copy to your local councillor. If possible, you should also contact your local advice centre. In your letter, offer to pay as much as you can, but not more than you can really afford. To balance their budget, the council will want you to clear your debt by the end of the financial year (31 March), so do whatever you can to meet this date. If you have a bank account, offer to pay by direct debit, but make sure you have enough in the account to pay off the debt at the time its due. If you are receiving Income Support or income-based Jobseeker s Allowance, you could ask for direct deductions to be made from your benefit. This will usually be taken at 2.80 a week. One way you may have more money to pay off your council tax debt is to reduce the amount you are paying out on other non-priority debts. See Which debts are the most important?, page 3. Remember, if you fall into behind with your council tax payments, it s important to deal with it straight away. Try to sort things out with the council before they reach the bailiffs. Some councils have written policies telling you when they will pass debts to bailiffs, and when they will take them back. Ask your council if they have a policy like this. What if the bailiffs knock on my door? If the bailiffs turn up, by law you do not have to open your door to them. You can insist that they pass some ID through the letterbox, and tell them that you will not be letting them in. Don t be persuaded that you must let them in. Make it clear that you know your rights, and you know that you don t have to open the door to them. The law says that bailiffs can get in only by gaining peaceful entry, which means if you allow them in or if they get in through an open door or window. If they don t gain peaceful entry they are not allowed to force their way in, and they will not be able to seize your belongings. However, if they do gain peaceful entry when they call on one visit, they are allowed to force their way in if they come on another visit. And a bailiff would not have to come into your home to seize your car they can seize a car parked in the street, as long as they are certain that the car belongs to you. Is there anything I can do if the bailiffs have been? It is hard to get the council to take a debt back from the bailiffs, but it s not impossible. Phone the council tax department and offer to make payments direct to clear the debt. If it refuses, write, and send a copy of your letter to the bailiffs, and your local councillor or MP. You could also visit your local advice centre, councillor or MP to get their help. Take a copy of all your documents with you. Bailiffs & debt collection 7

8 Bailiffs charges what they can add to your debt It s never too late to seek advice and to contact the council to find a way of dealing with council tax debt and avoid a visit from the bailiffs. However, if the council does employ bailiffs to get the money you owe, you should always receive a letter from a bailiff before they visit you. If you get a bailiff s letter you should get advice immediately. If you don t, they may try to take your belongings to pay off your debt. And you ll end up owing more, because the bailiffs add their own fees to the bill. But there are rules covering what they can charge you for, and how they must behave towards you. Levy charges The levy charge is the amount the bailiff charges for the work involved in recovering money from you. The amount of the levy charge depends on the size of your debt: the more you owe, the higher the charge. The charges must be worked out according to set of rules. You can check the rate of charges at the Department of Constitutional Affairs website enforcement/enfrev01/repac.htm But the rules are complicated, so you might like to get help from an advice centre to check that the bailiff s levy charge is correct. Visiting charges Bailiffs cannot charge you for sending you a letter, but they can charge you for their first two visits to your home. They can charge for the first visit and for the second visit. However, if you owe council tax for more than one year, each year s debt is taken separately, and the bailiff can add visiting charges for each debt. Walking possession charges If the bailiff has gained peaceful entry to your home, they will usually ask you to sign a payment agreement, called a walking possession order (WPO). This lets you keep your belongings as long as you stick to the agreement. The bailiff will charge you 11 for a WPO. If you do not stick to your payment arrangement, the bailiff can return and can force entry into your home and take your goods. Some bailiffs tell people that they will force their way into their home if they don t sign a WPO. But, you can be asked to sign a WPO only after a bailiff has gained peaceful entry. You do not have to sign a WPO to stop a bailiff forcing their way into your home! Remember, bailiffs have less power than they sometimes make you believe. If the bailiffs are not able to recover the debt from you, for example, because you do not have enough belongings to cover the debt, or because they have not been able to peaceably enter your home, they may return your debt to the council, which will look at other ways to get the money you owe. If this happens, it is very important that you speak to the council and try to work out a repayment arrangement with them. A local advice centre may be able to help you with this. Charge for taking away your belongings If you cannot reach a payment agreement with the bailiffs or you don t make the payments you ve agreed to, the bailiff will return to take your goods. The bailiff will charge you for the van they need to transport your goods. This charge must be in line with normal van-hire rates (but it can t be more than how much the bailiffs actually paid to hire the van). Bailiffs cannot bring a van to your home and try to charge you for it before they get walking possession. 8 Bailiffs & debt collection

9 Complaining about council bailiffs Having bailiffs turn up at your door is often upsetting. But bailiffs should always treat you with respect, and they must always keep to the law in the way they treat you. If you think you ve been treated unfairly, you should complain. Clearly, no one, including a bailiff, is allowed to be violent to you. If a bailiff is violent when they visit, you should call the police straight away. However, if you are unhappy about the way you have been treated by a bailiff for another reason, you can complain to your council. You may be able to get compensation for how you have been treated. You might need to take legal action against either the bailiffs or the council. If you are unsure which is to blame for how you have been treated, you may be able to issue proceedings against both as joint defendants. The court will then decide who should pay you compensation, if you win your case. Your legal adviser should be able to help you decide who you should seek compensation from, and how to do it. What legal action can I take? Here are some examples of when you may be able to take legal action because of the way bailiffs or the council have treated you: Negligence Bailiffs have a duty of care to look after your belongings if they have taken them. If they damage or lose them, for example, you can seek compensation. Trespass You can take legal action to seek compensation if a bailiff enters your home when they don t have a legal right to do so. Assault Assault happens when unlawful force or violence is used. Assault is a crime, and the police can arrest and charge a bailiff who assaults you. You can also seek compensation. Levy distress This is the phrase used to describe the procedure for taking someone s goods in order to sell them and settle a debt. It is illegal when the bailiff does not follow the proper procedures, and if this happens to you, you could claim compensation. Distress on goods owned by third parties Bailiffs should not take goods which you do not own for example, a television in your home that belongs to a relative or flatmate. If bailiffs take something that belongs to someone else, and you can prove this, you can take action to get it back, or possibly, to be paid for it. Injunctions An injunction is a type of legal action you can take to stop bailiffs calling when you know they will be acting outside the rules. It is important to take legal advice before taking legal action. You may qualify for public funding to help pay the solicitor s costs ask an advice agency for information on this. How do I make a complaint? In many cases, you won t want to or won t be able to take legal action. But if you feel you have been badly treated, you should still complain. First, find out about your council s complaints procedure (if it has one). There may be a special procedure for dealing with complaints about bailiffs. Check what to include in your letter or on the complaints form, and who to send it to. Keep a copy of the letter, and make a note of the date you sent it. If your complaint is not dealt with after a first letter, it can be a good idea to send a copy of the letters you write and receive to your local councillor or member of parliament (MP). Some councils have procedures which outline who you can take your complaint to if you are unhappy with the council s response. Otherwise, there are several options, as explained below. Seeing a councillor You could visit your local councillor. If they agree that the council hasn t dealt with your complaint properly (or at all!), they can write on your behalf, or take your case up personally with the council department you are complaining about. Taking your complaint to an ombudsman If this does not work, you should consider making an application to a local government ombudsman. A local advice agency may be able to help you with this. You will have to show the ombudsman that you have given the council a reasonable opportunity to resolve the complaint, which means that you must wait at least 12 weeks between making your first complaint and contacting the ombudsman. However, you don t have to have got to the end of the council s own complaints procedure before going to the ombudsman. The ombudsman you must contact depends on where you live: In England, contact the Local Government Ombudsman on , or visit In Wales, contact the Local Government Ombudsman Wales on , or visit Complaining to a professional body Another option is to complain to a bailiff s professional association, which you can do as well as taking any of the other types of action (though this may just make things complicated for you). The Association of Civil Enforcement Agencies (ACEA) is one of the main professional associations, and will deal with complaints about bailiffs and firms that are members. You can contact ACEA on , or visit Bailiffs & debt collection 9

10 Mortgage arrears key steps If you fall behind with your mortgage payments, you must take it seriously. Take the following key steps. 1 Contact your mortgage company as soon as you get into difficulties. Explain the problems you are having and tell it how much you can afford to pay towards the mortgage. 2 If you are unemployed or working part-time, you may be entitled to Income Support (IS) or income-based Jobseeker s Allowance (JSA) to help with the interest payments on your mortgage. If you have a repayment mortgage, you will still have to pay the capital part of your mortgage. If you have an endowment mortgage, you will still have to pay the endowment policy value. But IS of JSA won t always cover all the interest, and there will probably be delay before help with the interest starts. 3 If you don t receive IS or JSA, you may be entitled to other benefits. For example, you could be paid tax credits if you work or have children. An advice agency should be able to help you work out what you could receive. 4 Ask your mortgage lender if it will agree to accept reduced payments to cover only the interest for a time. 5 If you have an endowment mortgage and you are behind on the payments, ask about changing to a repayment mortgage. You may be able to cash in the endowment. However, this is a big decision, and you must get expert financial advice before doing this. 6 You could also look at cutting your repayments by switching to a mortgage with a lower interest rate from a different mortgage lender. Shop around, and take expert advice. 7 If your mortgage lender takes you to court for arrears, it is important that you go along to the hearing. You will need to show the court that you can pay your current monthly installment (or the amount you need to pay on top of any IS or JSA you may be entitled to), plus a reasonable amount towards the arrears each month. The court will normally expect you to clear the arrears within the remaining term of the mortgage. If you can t pay this much, you should seek advice before you go to the hearing. 8 If you reach an agreement in court to pay the arrears (often called a suspended possession order ) you must stick to that agreement and remember that you must continue with your current repayments as well. If you have problems keeping up with the terms of the order, contact your lender and seek help from your local advice or law centre urgently. If you don t take action, you may well be evicted. 9 If you break the terms of a suspended possession order, you will receive a letter saying that you will be evicted on a certain date by bailiffs. Even if this happens, you may still be able to save your home, but you must take action immediately. In certain cases, you may be able to have the eviction halted, possibly because you have since paid the arrears. This means applying to the court for a special hearing but you must get advice immediately if you are in this situation. 10 If you are evicted for mortgage arrears, the local authority may refuse to find you somewhere to live, even if you have children. This is because they may claim that you have made yourself homeless by not paying your mortgage. However, you can often challenge this kind of decision, but you will need expert advice to do this. 10 Bailiffs & debt collection

11 Rent arrears key steps If you fall behind with your rent, you must take it seriously. Take the following key steps. 1 Check that the amount of rent your landlord says you owe is right. Make sure they have not missed any payments you have made check your rent receipts if you have them. A local advice centre can help you check if the arrears are correct. 2 Is it a joint tenancy (when you rent with another person)? If you have a joint tenancy you will still be responsible for all the rent including the arrears, not just your share, but you might want to make sure that anybody else you are renting with pays any rent they owe. 3 Sometimes landlords incorrectly add sums to the rent arrears account when considering legal action. For example, housing benefit overpayments, or rent arrears from a previous address should be dealt with separately, and should not be added to your current arrears. 4 Check your tenancy agreement to see what it says about rent arrears. Visit or phone your local advice centre or law centre to discuss your situation and your rights and responsibilities as a tenant. 5 Check whether you could be entitled to housing benefit. People often find themselves with rent arrears because of a problem with housing benefit, which can be because of mistakes your council has made. However, housing benefit may still not cover the full amount of your rent, and you may have to find money to pay off the arrears. Ask your local housing office, housing association (or other social landlord ) or advice centre. You can also phone National Debtline for advice on Discuss your situation with your landlord. If you are entitled to housing benefit, explain to them that you have applied for it and are waiting for it to be paid. In the meantime, see if they will let you make regular payments that you can afford towards your rent. If you receive Income Support or income-based Jobseeker s Allowance and you live in a council house or flat, your housing office can accept minimum payments of 2.80 a week to pay off the arrears. 7 If you are not entitled to housing benefit, try to reach an agreement with your landlord to pay a regular amount (weekly or monthly, if you can) towards the arrears. 8 If you can t reach an agreement with your landlord to pay off a regular amount, seek help from a local advice centre or law centre. It should be able to put your case for you to the landlord. You can also phone National Debtline for advice on If you receive a court summons, contact your local advice or law centre as soon as possible. You must go to the court hearing to explain your situation and try to reach an agreement to clear the arrears. If you are on Income Support or income-based Jobseeker s Allowance, the court will sometimes allow you to pay a minimum of 2.80 per week to pay off the arrears. However, this depends on the type of tenancy you have and the reasons your landlord wants to evict you. Some courts have duty schemes with advice workers or solicitors available to offer advice and to represent you. Check if the court you are summoned to attend has such a service. You can phone National Debtline for advice on If you reach an agreement in court to pay the arrears (often called a suspended possession order ) you must stick to that agreement and remember that you must continue to pay your current rent as well. If you have problems keeping to the terms of the order, contact your landlord and seek help from your local advice or law centre urgently. If you don t keep up the payments, you could be evicted. 11 If you break the terms of a suspended possession order, you will receive a letter saying that you will be evicted on a certain date by bailiffs. Even if this happens, you may still be able to save your home, but you must take action immediately. In certain cases, you may be able to have the eviction halted, possibly because you have since paid the arrears. This means applying to the court for a special hearing but you must get advice immediately if you are in this situation. 12 If you are evicted for rent arrears, the local authority may refuse to find you somewhere to live, even if you have children. This is because they may claim that you have made yourself homeless by not paying your rent. However, you can often challenge this kind of decision, but you will need expert advice to do this. Bailiffs & debt collection 11

12 Jargon buster There are lots of official and legal terms you may hear or read when you are dealing with debts. Listed below the main words and phrases you ll come across, and what they really mean. The jargon Bailiffs What it means There are different types of bailiff, who do different things. Bailiffs are often used to get people to pay debts or fines. When they are acting on the orders of the court, they are called certificated bailiffs, but some organisations employ bailiffs to chase debts even before the debt has gone to court. Other bailiffs are used to physically remove people from their home, when the court has decided to evict them (for not paying their rent or mortgage). County court This is a civil court, often used to enforce debts. Debts of up to 5,000 are dealt with through the small claims system, which is also run from the county court. Creditor The people you owe money to. Debtor The person who owes the money. Execute or distrain These words mean the same as levying distress (see Complaining about council bailiffs, page 9). Some bailiffs use these terms, or you may read them in official letters. Levy charges Charges made by the bailiff to pay for the work involved in recovering money from you. Liability order A council must get a liability order from the magistrate s court before it can take action to get you to pay the council tax you owe. At the court hearing, the council must provide evidence that you are must to pay council tax, and that the payment is overdue. Hearings last only a matter of minutes, and most people do not attend. Magistrate s court This is a criminal court. However, it is also used to start proceedings to enforce council tax debts. See Liability order, above. Peaceful entry When a bailiff enters your home either by being allowed in by a responsible adult (not a young child), or climbing through an open window, or coming in through a closed but unlocked door. It does not include breaking windows or doors, or pushing past occupants. Once a bailiff has gained peaceful entry to your home once, they can return later and force entry to take your belongings if they need to, to pay your debts. Seizure Bailiffs cannot take goods unless they have seized them. This means laying claim to the goods, by either touching or looking at them, and at the same time saying that they are henceforth seized. Walking possession order (WPO) Usually, once a bailiff has seized goods (see above), they may either take them away, or ask you to sign a WPO, which lets you keep your belongings as long as you pay an amount you have agreed to. But once you have signed a WPO, the goods pass into control of the bailiff. They can then be removed at any time for sale. Warrant This is written permission from the court to the bailiff, allowing the bailiff to carry out their work. 12 Bailiffs & debt collection

13 Getting help with debt For online advice, or to find out where to go for help: Community Legal Service Direct Helpline: Website: Consumer Credit Counselling Service Helpline: Website: National Debtline Helpline: Website: Citizens Advice Find a Citizens Advice Bureau: Online Citizens Advice Bureau advice: Written by Blackfriars Advice Centre and Walthamstow Citizens Advice Bureau funded by the Legal Services Commission Published by Advice Services Alliance, Bramah House, Bermondsey St, London SE1 3XF Advice Services Alliance (ASA), the co-ordinating body for UK advice services. ASA members include advice UK, Age Concern England, Citizens Advice, DIAL UK, Law Centres Federation, Shelter and Youth Access. ASA works with its membership and government to develop policy on delivery of legal and advice services; champions the development of high quality information, advice and legal services; and provides supporting services to advice networks. The law in Scotland and Northern Ireland is significantly different. The Advice Services Alliance is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England and Wales, no: , registered office 12th floor, New London Bridge House, 25 London Bridge St, London SE1 9ST bailiffs

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