Today (11 April 2019) the House of Commons Justice Committee published the report of a short inquiry into how Bailiffs (also known as enforcement agents) enforce civil court orders for the repayment of debt.
The inquiry was undertaken because the Committee became concerned about a rise in complaints about the
behaviour of bailiffs recorded by debt advice charities, as well as concerns expressed directly to Members of the Committee at their constituency surgeries, by people reporting bad experiences with bailiffs who had visited their homes. Worrying cases were raised in a Westminster Hall debate on Bailiff Regulatory Reform. MPs gave examples such as a vulnerable constituent having serious health conditions ignored and being threatened with prison, and an elderly constituent being wrongly forced to pay the debt of her adult son.
Although. the MoJ carried out reforms of the enforcement system in 2014, aimed at making the system fairer and more efficient, the complaints continue and the MoJ is also currently undertaking an inquiry.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Committee found strong differences of view on whether the 2014 reforms of the enforcement industry, which introduced individual certification of enforcement agents and a standardised fee regime, had been successful. There was a gulf between the large numbers of complaints reported by the debt advice charities and the very small numbers reported by the enforcement agencies, industry associations and others.
There was, however, a general consensus that there was room for improvements in how complaints were handled. The current complaints system is fragmented and hard to navigate, especially for vulnerable people.
The Committee expressed surprise that bailiffs are apparently so under-regulated compared with other sectors, including debt collection. The existing system of individual certification by the courts seems to be a rubber-stamping exercise.
The Committee also raised the issue of the fee structure which has not been properly reviewed or updated since its introduction in 2014, despite a Government commitment at the time to do so annually in the light of Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation. Equally, given that these fees are paid by some of the poorest people in society, it is also vital that the fees are proportionate.
The Committee recommended the establishment of an independent complaints body, to which all complaints about enforcement agents can be escalated. In setting up such a body, the Ministry of Justice should take account of the important role of the existing Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the much-delayed introduction of the proposed Public Service Ombudsman.
The Committee also recommended the creation of an industry regulator with the powers to stop unfit enforcement agents and companies from practising. This regulator should also work to change culture and raise standards. The Committee recomended that the new regulator should regularly review and make expert recommendations to the MOJ about the fixed fee structure.
Finally, the Committee recommended that body-worn cameras be mandatory for all enforcement agents visiting homes and businesses in order to protect both the agent and debtor alike, and make it easier to investigate complaints.