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The national charity fears that vulnerable people will be at greater risk from bailiffs abusing their powers as a result of measures contained in the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill, which received its second reading in the House of Commons on March 2nd.
If it becomes law, the Bill will extend to all bailiffs the power to forcibly enter domestic premises to enforce debts, including consumer credit debts such as credit card bills. Currently only certain bailiffs have this power, most notably those enforcing magistrates court fines.
CA is pressing for independent regulation of bailiffs to be included in the Bill. It also wants clear safeguards to ensure that forcible entry is only used as a last resort and only where it can be shown that the debtor is not a vulnerable person and that non-payment is the result of wilful refusal or culpable neglect.
Evidence from local Citizens Advice Bureaux shows that many private bailiffs already act almost as a law unto themselves, with devastating effects on people's lives. Intimidation, harassment and excessive fee charging by bailiffs are commonplace, driving already vulnerable people deeper into poverty and debt.
An analysis of 500 case reports from Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales since October 2006 found that 64% of bailiffs were guilty of harassment or intimidation, 40% misrepresented their powers of entry, a quarter threatened debtors with imprisonment and 42% charged excessive fees. In over half the cases, the debtor was vulnerable. In all these instances the bailiffs concerned were either breaking the law or in breach of their own industry code and nationally agreed standards of practice.
David Harker, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice makes the point that bailiff law is complex, confusing and long overdue for reform. "This Bill should have been the perfect opportunity to modernise the law and end abuse once and for all. Instead it gives bailiffs greater powers without any proper regulation - a recipe for abuse on an unprecedented scale.
"It is a scandal and a disgrace that six years after the Government made a commitment to bring in independent regulation, the misery and abuse continues," he says.
There are currently few controls over what bailiffs do and how much they charge, with bailiff powers set out in a complex series of archaic laws - some dating back to 1267. Under the terms of the new Bill, bailiffs will have the right to apply to court to use reasonable force to enter premises and debtors will no longer be able to refuse them entry.
Although plans for independent regulation formed part of the original Bill, these have been dropped in favour of consultation on the issue which will not be completed before the Bill becomes law.