21/08/2018 16:44 BST | Updated 22/08/2018 14:09 BST

Bailiff Collections Have Risen: Here's What You Need To Know If You've Slipped Behind On Bills

Citizens Advice helped one person every three minutes last year with debt.

It can be a truly desperate situation - having your possessions taken away because you have failed to repay a debt. However this is the reality for thousands of people in the UK, according to Citizens Advice, which said it helped one person every three minutes with bailiff issues last year. 

New research from the charity shows it helped 690,000 people with household debt last year such as from missed council tax payments and 350,000 with consumer debt issues arising from things like missed phone bills.

It says it has come across families too frightened to open the front door. 

“Families are living in fear of a visit from the bailiffs, and small missed bills can skyrocket through excessive enforcement fees,” CEO Gillian Guy said. “Our evidence shows aggressive tactics by bailiffs cause huge distress and can even push people further into debt. Families are going without essentials like food or electricity to meet their payments.”

Peter Dazeley via Getty Images

If you’ve missed bills or have been served a bailiff notice, what can you do?

The first thing to do is not to panic as best you can, and crucially not to ignore the problem before it goes out of control. If you’ve slipped behind on bills seek out professional advice. Citizens Advice the charity Debt Change, the Money Advice Service and National Debtline offer free advice.

They can help you to prioritise which payments to make first and depending on your individual circumstances may help you to negotiate an affordable repayment plan with the lender(s). The earlier you seek advice, the better.

Citizens Advice Expert Debt Adviser Graham O’Malley told HuffPost UK that 
people spiral into debt for a number of different reasons. Issues can often arise from the “complicated” benefits system or changes in personal circumstances, he says. The government’s website explains bailiffs might be engaged to recover a number of debts - from unpaid parking tickets to court fines. 

Here’s what you need to know about bailiffs, how they operate, and your rights.

A bailiff is often a last resort. 

“A bailiff is a type of debt collector and they are usually involved after a court case,” Graham O’Malley says. They are often hired after other avenues have been exhausted, which is why it’s important to seek advice as early on in the process as you can.  

There are rules bailiffs have to follow.

Bailiffs can’t just turn up one day unannounced. Nor can they break in, force their way in, or climb in through your window, he says.

Once a bailiff has been instructed they will have to write to you with at least seven days notice to let you know. While they have to tell you the date, they don’t have to tell you the time. “You wouldn’t typically get a time - they can visit any time between 6am and 9pm,” O’Malley adds. They will also charge you fees - usually ”£310 by the time they get to your door.”

If a bailiff is at the door and you ignore them, bear in mind that they can also technically take anything from your driveway, including a car. They may also charge you for a repeat visit. Failing to pay some debts can also be a criminal offence. 

If you do let them in - ensure you check their identity first to be sure they are legitimate. If you make any payments there and then, take a receipt as proof.

There are certain items they can’t take.

Finally, they are allowed by law to take “luxury items” such as TVs and games consoles, according to the government website.

“One important thing is they can’t take everything,” O’Malley says. “Like things you need for your day-to-day living or tools of trade [up to a value of £1,350].”

Essentials that you need for day-to-day living include your cooker and our clothes. Bailiffs also can’t take things that don’t belong to you in the home - such as a partner’s laptop - although you will have to have proof it doesn’t belong to you. 

UPDATE: A previous version of this article stated that bailiffs will charge around £300, the updated version has corrected this to £310.