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LGO highlights problems in bailiff action on behalf of councils

Nov 29 2012
Councils have to take responsibility for their bailiffs’ actions, and ensure complaints are handled properly, according to the Local Government Ombudsman.

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) has yesterday (28 November 2012) published a report outlining issues arising from complaints about bailiff action on behalf of councils. The report focuses on cases that have resulted in injustice to the individuals concerned, showing what can go wrong and just how serious the injustice can be. The report suggests how councils and their agents can avoid others suffering in a similar way.

The report highlights cases where inappropriate or unreasonable fees and charges have been made. Some examples are:

• Bailiffs making multiple charges without explaining what they are for. In one case, a debtor was charged three fees amounting to £405 without any explanation. When the LGO got an explanation of the charges from the council involved, they found the debtor had been overcharged by £300 plus VAT.
• Bailiffs are entitled to charge a ‘van fee’ when they attend a property with a vehicle with a view to removing goods. However, the LGO highlights where a bailiff charged a ‘van fee’ when they had not entered a property or removed any goods.
• Bailiffs are also entitled to take ‘walking possession’ of goods – where the goods are left on the debtor’s premises after the debtor agrees to make payments on the outstanding debt or while a query is resolved – and add costs for this. However, the LGO shows where this can be unreasonable in a case where a bailiff took walking possession of a doormat and charged costs of £230.

The report also focuses on action taken against vulnerable debtors, and it sets out some questions councils should ensure bailiffs consider when dealing with potentially vulnerable debtors.

Dr Jane Martin, Ombudsman and Chair of the LGO says: “Sometimes a bailiff may be the first person acting on behalf of the council to meet the debtor. The bailiff may be the first person to realise the debtor is vulnerable. It is essential that bailiffs are alert to possible vulnerability and that they report any concerns back to the council.”

The Ombudsman is tending to find fault in a higher proportion of complaints that involve bailiff action than in other complaints about local taxation or parking enforcement. The most recent figures show that 31% of complaints involving bailiffs had a remedy proposed compared with only 23% of other complaints about local taxation and parking enforcement.

In the report’s conclusions, the Local Government Ombudsman recommends that councils should ensure that bailiffs:

• only charge costs and fees in the schedules to the regulations, giving details of costs and fees referring to the specific headings in the relevant schedule, or make clear why an alternative sum has been charged
• agree with councils in advance any areas of possible dispute over interpretation of the cost and fee
• make proper checks when levying on vehicles, especially when enforcing costs and fees, and
• exercise caution when dealing with potentially vulnerable debtors and consider whether recovery action is appropriate.

Councils also need to ensure they take final responsibility for their bailiffs’ actions and that any complaints are handled appropriately, including considering complaints themselves when necessary and not simply referring the complainants back to the bailiffs.

Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said:

“Clearly, councils have an obligation to their local residents to collect council tax, as every penny of uncollected council tax effectively increases the tax burden on the law-abiding local residents who do pay their bills on time. Yet councils equally need to show compassion towards the vulnerable and recognise individual cases of hardship.

"The use of bailiffs should also be a last resort, they should not be commissioned disproportionately and councils should take direct responsibility for them.

"The Government is taking action to rein in aggressive bailiffs, and we intend to issue further guidance to councils in due course to stop the sort of unacceptable behaviour that the Ombudsman has identified.”

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