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Can bailiffs take my car?

Posted 17 September 2019

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If you’ve had a letter or a visit from someone who appears to be a bailiff, you’re likely to have a lot of questions.

Are these real bailiffs? Can they break into my house? Can bailiffs take my car -  or my furniture? Will I be arrested if I don’t do what they say?

It’s natural to be upset, stressed out and maybe a bit confused. Contact from a bailiff is usually a sign that you urgently need expert debt advice, so click here to get help with your debts right away. But in the meantime, we’ve put together everything you need to know to protect your home and your possessions - including your car - if you’re concerned that the bailiffs might come back.

What are bailiffs?

‘Bailiff’ is another name for the debt enforcement agents with legal powers to recover debts on behalf of creditors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. (In Scotland, Sheriff Officers recover debts instead. They work a little differently - so bear that in mind as you read on.)

A bailiff can usually only be sent to your property following court action. (The exception to this is HM Revenue & Customs, who can send bailiffs without going through the courts.) This court action could have been taken by:

- a creditor, either to enforce a debt or a fine, or to repossess goods under a hire purchase or conditional sale agreement

- or a landlord, to evict you from their property.

This blogpost only refers to bailiffs collecting a debt. If you’ve had any contact from bailiffs about an eviction, you most likely need urgent housing advice - check out Shelter’s website here.

Bailiffs can only visit you seven or more working days after they’ve sent you a letter, called a notice of enforcement, to let you know they’ll be coming. If you’ve received a notice of enforcement, get expert debt advice straightaway.

There are four types of bailiff, who act differently according to the type of debt being collected:

Private bailiffs often collect for local authorities - usually council tax arrears and parking fines - and for HMRC; but they could be employed by any creditor.

County Court bailiffs are instructed when a creditor has a County Court Judgment (CCJ).

High Court Enforcement Officers are, as the name suggests, instructed by the High Court. If a creditor has a CCJ of more than £600 (including court costs) they can transfer the judgment to the High Court for enforcement. This does not apply to debts regulated by the Consumer Credit Act - only the County Court can enforce these.

Magistrates Court bailiffs mostly deal with fines for criminal offences.

Are bailiffs the same as debt collectors?

Debt collectors - also known as doorstep collectors or field agents - may contact you on behalf of a creditor by phone or by letter. They are not the same thing as bailiffs. 

It’s unusual to get a visit at home from a debt collector, because they have no powers to enter your home or to take anything away. If a debt collector does visit your house, you don’t have to open the door to them or let them in. The most they can do is ask you to make repayments, but you do not have to pay them. If you ask them to leave they have to do so - but the debt won’t go away! Don’t be tempted to bury your head in the sand: get expert debt advice as soon as you can.

What powers do bailiffs have?

Bailiffs can be instructed, via a court warrant, to repossess your property, or to take your possessions, sell them, and give the proceeds to your creditor to pay back what you owe them. 

They can seize goods for:

- Council Tax arrears

- Child support arrears

- County or High Court debts

- National insurance

- VAT and tax debts.

 

It’s important to know what powers bailiffs have when they come to your property, because they won’t always tell you the truth. Most bailiffs can only enter residential property through a door, in a peaceful way, with your permission. This means they can’t break in, push past you, or enter the house if no-one over 16 is present. There are exceptions - bailiffs collecting tax debts or criminal fines may be able to break in - but they need court permission, and in practice this is rarely used.

If a bailiff comes into your home they’ll usually make a list of possessions you have that could be sold to pay off the debts. They don’t normally take the items straight away, but will return to collect them later. Once a bailiff has been into your home and made this list of items, they are legally allowed to use force to enter on their next visit.  It’s therefore not a good idea to let them in in the first place. Don’t open the door; don’t sign anything that they give you; and get expert debt advice as soon as you can.

If I don’t let the bailiffs in, will they take my car?

If you receive a notice of enforcement letter advising that a bailiff will be visiting, it’s a good idea to leave your car in a locked garage, or with a friend or family member (with their permission!) if possible, while you seek debt advice.

This is because if you have a car, it’s likely to be one of the highest-value things you own, and one of the easiest to sell. And if it’s parked on your drive and obviously yours, it is also one of the easiest things for the bailiff to remove.

Bailiffs can’t take any vehicle which is:

- displaying a disabled badge, or obviously used by a disabled person

- subject to a logbook loan, if you haven’t yet made the last payment

- essential for your job (eg your taxi, if you’re a taxi driver) - unless it’s worth £1,350 or more

- someone’s main home, like a camper van, caravan or houseboat.

If a bailiff knows you have a vehicle but they can’t find it at your home, they’ll often search neighbouring streets, sometimes using automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras. They are supposed to check the DVLA and Hire Purchase Index to confirm who owns a vehicle before they take it.

Can bailiffs take my car if it’s on hire purchase?

If you have a car on a hire purchase agreement, the car doesn’t belong to you until it’s paid off - but some bailiffs will argue that the regulations do allow them to take or clamp cars on hire purchase. Get expert debt advice straight away if a bailiff is threatening to take your car.

Get help with your debts

We hope this post has given you some tips on how to protect your property from bailiffs in the short term. But contact from bailiffs - or even debt collectors - is a sign that you need help to sort out your debts. Click here to get help with your debts today.

by Christine Walsh

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To find out more about managing your money and getting free debt advice, visit Money Advice Service, an independent service set up to help people manage their money.