Essex: Shergroup chief Claire Sandbrook backs consultation on bailiff reforms

THE head of a High Court enforcement agency based in Essex has called on the industry to play its part in a Government consultation on how the work of bailiffs is regulated.

Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly has announced a planned overhaul in a bid to clamp down on bad practices and help protect vulnerable people by ensuring that bailiffs carry out their work professionally.

Under the proposals, the Government could ban the use of force against people and set out exactly when and how force may be used to enter premises. New national standards to ensure bailiffs are fit to operate could also be brought in.

“Too many people have experienced intrusive, expensive and stressful bailiff action and more often than not the public do not hold bailiffs in high regard, despite the fact most bailiffs carry out their work professionally,” Mr Djanogly said.

“Last month we announced the first stage of reforms with new national standards and we are now unveiling plans for legally-binding changes that will clamp down on bad practices.

“We want to restore balance to the system, improve clarity for both debtors and creditors, strengthen protection for vulnerable people and ensure that individuals, business and Government are able to collect the debts they are owed - but in a way that is fair and regulated by law.”

The updated standards will include minimum levels of behaviour, including that bailiffs must not behave in a threatening manner or use unlawful force to gain access to a home or business, that they should avoid discussing the debt with anyone except the person owing money, and that they must withdraw when only a child is present.

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The new legally-binding regulatory regime, which includes new rules around the modes and times of entry, which goods are exempt, and what fees bailiffs can charge for the range of debts they collect for local government, courts and businesses also form part of the Government’s consultation.

Claire Sandbrook, chief executive of Braintree-based High Court enforcement agency Shergroup, said: “The consultation is long awaited and much anticipated and we will be going through it with great interest.

“We would also encourage all those with an interest in enforcement law reform and enforcement agent regulation to participate in the consultation exercise. This may represent a once in a lifetime opportunity to make meaningful and much needed reforms to the industry.”

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust (Mat), warned that bailiffs often “blagged” their way into people’s homes, sometimes by asking to use the toilet, as they gained more rights after being invited in once.

“As well as lying about their rights to enter a property, our clients tell us that bailiffs often charge excessive fees, exhibit threatening behaviour and ignore existing rules and codes of conduct,” Ms Elson said.

“We have long argued that the introduction of an independent regulator enforcing simplified regulations and an independent complaints body with significant powers of redress would go a long way to stamping out these bad practices. This would give vulnerable people somewhere to turn when they feel they have been mistreated.”

She went on: “In the current economic climate many families worry enormously about their debts. Protecting people from unethical and bullying bailiffs would mean they have one less problem to worry about. We look forward to continuing to work with the Government to achieve suitable protection for vulnerable consumers.”

Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch campaign group, said: “Last year we exposed how in just three years local councils had sent in bailiffs on more than six million occasions. In many cases it was for trivial issues like the late payment of parking fines.

“In too many cases, bailiffs are a law unto themselves; barging their way into people’s homes, intimidating vulnerable members of the public and imposing rip-off charges.

“Today’s announcement is a victory for civil liberties, for families and for common sense. Sending in bailiffs to recover debts should always be the absolute last resort and it is absolutely right that they should not be able to operate above the law.”

Hiowever, Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, warned that the consultation “falls far short of protecting people in financial difficulty from the excessive and unfair practices carried out by bailiffs”.

“While the re-coding of the law on bailiffs is welcome, without an independent regulatory body to oversee the bailiff industry, these reforms are unlikely to deal with the serious problems that we continue to see,” she said.

“We’re also disappointed at proposals which will lead to a massive increase in bailiff fees for enforcing council tax debts.

“Almost 70% of inquiries Citizens Advice Bureaux receive about bailiffs relate to council tax debt. The review does nothing to stop bailiffs in England increasing their fees for families already in dire straits from �42.50 to over �300. Jonathan Djanogly must offer squeezed households more protection.”