Why is this important?
This information applies to England and Wales
- About bailiffs
- When are bailiffs used
- Are debt collectors the same as bailiffs
- Are the bailiffs like the police
- Types of bailiffs
- Do bailiffs have to be authorised
- What to check if you're visited by bailiffs
- Getting notice of a visit from the bailiffs
- Further help
If you owe money, your creditor has various options to try and get their money back. Instructing the bailiffs to take your things away is one of these options.
A bailiff is someone whose job it is to take away things belonging to people who owe money. The things are then sold and the money is used to pay back the debts.
Bailiffs can also be used to take back things that belong to your creditor. For example, if you were buying a car on hire purchase, the bailiffs can sometimes come and take back the car if you don’t pay the instalments.
For more information about when a creditor can take goods bought on hire purchase, see Hire purchase.
This page gives you basic information about types of bailiff and what they're allowed to do, including:
- when bailiffs can be used
- who uses them
- how bailiffs are authorised
- things to check if a bailiff visits.
Bailiffs may also used be used to evict you from a property that has been repossessed because of rent or mortgage arrears. We don't cover evictions under the bailiff information.
For more information about eviction for rent arrears, see fact sheet about Rent arrears [ 40 KB].
For more information about eviction for mortgage arrears, see Eviction for mortgage arrears.
If you’re facing eviction because of rent or mortgage arrears, you should get advice from an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
If you owe money, your creditor has various options to try and get their money back. For example, they could apply to the court for an order to take money out of your wages to pay back your debt.
Instructing the bailiffs to take your things away is another option. The goods are usually sold at auction. The money raised goes towards the bailiffs’ fees and charges and what is left over goes to your creditor.
Most goods have a low second-hand value and there are rules about what goods a bailiff must leave behind. So using the bailiffs is not always a good option for a creditor because they might not get all their money back. On the other hand, people are afraid of the bailiffs and if they think the bailiffs are coming, they may try and raise the money to pay off the creditor before the bailiffs actually come and take their things.
There usually has to be a court order before bailiffs can come to take your things away. Even when the bailiffs have got authorisation to act, it may be possible to negotiate with the creditor to call the bailiffs off.
Bailiffs can be used to make you pay the following debts:
- council tax arrears
- business rates arrears
- county court orders (CCJs)
- High Court orders (judgments)
- child support arrears
- parking/road traffic penalties
- fines in a criminal case
- income tax arrears
- VAT debts
- rent arrears.
Some creditors might use debt collectors to get their money back. A debt collector is a person or firm collecting money on behalf of the lender. Debt collectors are not bailiffs and don’t have the same legal powers as bailiffs.
A debt collector should never pretend to be a bailiff to scare you into paying a debt. A real bailiff will have special authorisation to act.
The bailiffs aren’t the same as the police. They don’t have police powers.
Bailiffs who have been authorised to take your belongings to repay a debt don’t have the right to threaten you with arrest or prison. They aren’t allowed to call the police to help them get into your home. However the police could be called to prevent a breach of the peace (that is, if there is likely to be trouble). The bailiffs will physically break into your home and the police will stand by, ready to intervene to prevent trouble.
When can bailiffs be used to arrest you
Bailiffs can arrest you but only in very limited cases and if they have been authorised to do so by the magistrates' court. For example, if you haven't paid a court fine or council tax debt and you don't turn up in court when told to, the magistrates can issue a warrant of arrest for you to be arrested and brought to court to answer questions. In this situation, arrests are often carried out by private bailiffs rather than the police.
Bailiffs have to follow certain rules before they can come to your house and take your things. There are many different rules. The rules depend on what the debt is for and the type of bailiff involved. A bailiff can be one of the following:
- a private bailiff
- a county court bailiff
- a High Court enforcement officer
- a magistrates’ court bailiff.
Private bailiffs are either self-employed or employed by private firms. They can work for:
- the local authority, to collect council tax arrears
- magistrates' courts, to collect money owed in criminal cases, for example fines, or in non-criminal cases such as road traffic penalties. Most magistrates now use private bailiffs to collect these debts
- the Child Support Agency (CSA) or the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), to collect unpaid child maintenance
- landlords, where there are rent arrears
- HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), to collect unpaid income tax or VAT.
In some cases, private bailiffs have to be certificated.
County court bailiffs work for the county court and they are responsible to the district judge of the local county court. They can be used if you have a county court order (county court judgment or CCJ) against you for:
- most credit agreements (regulated credit agreements) or
- personal debts of £5,000 or less.
For more about regulated credit agreements, see Your rights when you borrow money.
High Court enforcement officers work for the High Court. They are used to deal with High Court orders (judgments). They may also be used for county court orders (county court judgments or CCJs) of £600 or over. If a CCJ is for £5,000 or more, the High Court must be used to deal with this debt. In these pages, we use the term bailiffs to cover these enforcement officers although this isn’t strictly their proper name.
Magistrates’ court bailiffs work for the magistrates’ court and they are responsible to the clerk of the magistrates' court. They are used to deal with:
- money owed because of a criminal case, including fines
- money owed in certain non-criminal cases, for example, road traffic penalties.
However most magistrates’ courts now use private bailiffs to collect these debts.
For certain debts, certificated bailiffs must be used, for example, to take your things for council tax arrears.
To qualify as a certificated bailiff, the bailiff must apply for a certificate from the county court every two years. They must also meet certain conditions, for example, they must be able to show they are a fit and proper person to hold a certificate. If they don’t act properly, they may lose their certificate. This would mean they can no longer work as a certificated bailiff.
In most cases, the bailiffs also need a court order to act. For some debts, further authorisation may be needed from the court before bailiffs can visit you.
Authorisation for council tax arrears
If you have council tax arrears, the local authority can authorise the bailiffs to take your things away once a liability order has been made. They don't have to go back to the court for authorisation.
The authorisation the local authority gives to the bailiffs is called a warrant of execution.
For more information about when the local authority can get a liability order for council tax arrears, see Council tax.
For county court and high court orders, the bailiffs need another special authorisation from the court before they can try to take your things away.
In the county court, the court order to take your things away to be sold is called a warrant of execution. The court order to take back goods that belong to your creditor, such as goods you've bought on hire purchase, is called a warrant of delivery.
For more information about when a creditor can take back good bought on hire purchase, see Hire purchase.
In the High Court, the court order to take your things to be sold is called a writ of fi-fa.
Authorisation for income tax or VAT arrears
Her Majesty's Customs and Excise (HMRC) may use their own enforcement officers or private bailiffs to take away your things for income tax or VAT arrears. They don't need to get a court order first.
Authorisation for rent arrears
Some landlords don’t need a court order before they can instruct bailiffs to take your things to pay for rent arrears. The rules about this are very complicated and depend on the sort of tenancy you have. It's rare for bailiffs to be used in this way.
If your landlord threatens to send bailiffs to get back rent arrears, you should get further advice from an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
If you’re visited by the bailiffs, make sure you ask to see:
- proof of their identity
- a copy of the original court order saying you owe the money
- a copy of their authorisation to take your things away
- if they're a certificated bailiff proof of their certificate.
Check the dates of the documents to see if they are still valid. For example, a warrant of execution or writ of fi-fa is only valid for one year after it has been issued unless there is proof that a judge has extended it.
If the bailiffs’ authorisation was issued a while ago, or if the bailiffs won’t show you the documents, get urgent advice from an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
Even if the bailiffs have got all the correct documentation, you don’t usually have to let them in.
You generally have the right to get notice that the bailiffs are coming. For example, if you have a liability order for council tax arrears, the local authority must send you a warning letter at least 14 days before the bailiff's first visit, informing you that:
- a liability order has been made and the amount that it is for
- the case may be passed to a bailiff unless you pay the amount due before fourteen days has passed
- you will have to pay the bailiffs fees if they are used. Details of the fees must be enclosed.
For more about when the local authority can get a liability order for council tax arrears, see Council tax.
If you've received notice that the bailiffs are going to come and take your goods away, you should get advice urgently. Don’t ignore the notice. The bailiffs charge fees to come to your property and your debt will probably just get bigger if you ignore them.
In some cases you won’t get notice that the bailiffs are going to come. For example, creditors don’t have to send you a warning notice that a writ of fi-fa has been issued in the High Court although they may chose to do so. The bailiffs will usually come to take goods shortly after the issue of the writ of fi-fa.
If you’ve received notice that the bailiffs are coming, you should get further advice from an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
- How to stop bailiff action
- Letting bailiffs into your home
- What happens if the bailiffs get in
- The sale of your goods
- Bailiffs’ charges
- Complaining about bailiffs
- Help with debt
- Council tax
- Rent arrears [ 40 KB] fact sheet
- Child maintenance arrears [ 42 KB] fact sheet.