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What's the difference between bailiffs and debt collectors?

Something we're often asked about is the use of bailiffs and debt collectors to get you to repay a debt. Although both can visit you at home, debt collectors and bailiffs are actually very different.

The most important thing to know here is that a debt collector doesn’t have any special legal powers to collect a debt, whereas a bailiff does.

Here we’ll break down what each can do and in what situations they can be used to collect debt.

What's a bailiff?

Nowadays bailiffs are officially called enforcement agents. However, many of us still refer to them as bailiffs.

A bailiff or enforcement agent has legal powers to collect a debt. Some bailiffs work on behalf of private companies, some are self-employed and some work for the council.

Bailiffs collect things such as County Court judgments (CCJs), council tax arrears, parking fines, and child maintenance arrears.

Bailiffs have a legal right to visit your property, and to remove and sell your goods to pay off a debt. These powers mean that these kinds of debts are more of a priority to stay on top of than other debts.

What's a debt collector?

A debt collector works on behalf of a creditor or debt collection agency. They can also be called a doorstep collector or a field agent.

Sometimes a creditor letter will mention having a debt collector visit your home. But the likelihood of this happening is actually quite small.

This could be because collection agents can’t actually take anything from your property like a bailiff can. The most they can do is ask you to make a payment arrangement on the debt. The key word here is ask, not force.

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When can a bailiff collect a debt?

In most cases, a bailiff can only be sent to your property after court action - either via magistrates’ court, High Court or County Court, depending on the debt - has been taken. The exception is HM Revenue & Customs, who can use bailiffs without taking you to court first.

Even then, a bailiff only typically gets involved if you’ve ignored correspondence from the court or failed to set up a payment everyone can agree on.

When can a debt collector collect a debt?

Debt collectors can work on behalf of debt collection agencies or in an internal collections team for your creditor. In some cases, a debt collection agency will collect a debt on behalf of your original creditor after a debt has been passed on.

Debt collection agencies also buy debts from creditors. Most debts will only be sold onto a debt collection agency if the account holder has defaulted on payments.

If you’re unsure who owns one of your debts, give the original creditor a call to see what’s going on. They’ll be able to let you know who you should be making payments to.

How many times can a bailiff visit?

There’s no formal limit on the number of visits a bailiff can make. They will usually call several times and eventually return the warrant to the court or the local authority if they can’t enter your property or take control of goods.

If you feel a bailiff is harassing you by visiting your property too often you can make a complaint. Find out about making bailiff complaints.

What debt can bailiffs collect?

The debt bailiffs can collect is varied.

Let’s focus on county court bailiffs for the time being. This kind of bailiff can collect most types of debt that you can lend to an individual or a business.

But this can only happen after your creditor has applied for a CCJ and you’ve not paid the amount the court told you to.

Other bailiffs can collect a variety of debts that you might owe to the government or your local authority, including:

  • Council tax arrears
  • Child maintenance arrears
  • Criminal fines
  • Parking penalties issued by the local authority
  • Money owed to HM Revenue & Customs, including income tax, VAT, National Insurance or tax credit overpayments

What debt can debt collectors collect?

Debt collectors usually collect most types of commercial debt, most commonly:

They can collect a wide range of other debts though, from debts to your local council to unpaid loans to an individual.

What can bailiffs do?

Bailiffs can only visit you after they’ve sent you a letter to let you know they’ll be coming. This letter is called a notice of enforcement and should be received seven clear days before the visit. Allowing for weekends, this means you should have a minimum of 9-10 days to either pay the debt in full or come to an arrangement to repay the debt in instalments. If you don’t do this, the bailiff will visit.

A bailiff can only enter your house through a door and in a peaceful way with your permission. They’ve got to let you know who they are and why they’re there. Bailiffs can’t use force to enter your home or break down your doors. They can’t push past you to get in either, or enter the home if there’s only a child under the age of 16 there.

Once they’re in the property, they can begin making a list of goods which they could later remove to sell at auction.

For most types of debts, bailiffs can’t force their way in to your home and in most cases we recommend that you don’t let them in.

However, if a bailiff is collecting a criminal fine they can use force to enter your home. This will only be done as a last resort and this power is very rarely used.

Bailiffs from HM Revenue & Customs can also use force when collecting some tax debts, but they need a court’s permission and again, this is very rarely used.

Bailiffs collecting debts at business premises have wider powers to force entry, so if you’re self-employed and own a shop or workshop, they may be able to break in.

If there’s a bailiff at your door you can lock the door and talk to them through the letterbox or an upstairs window if you’d prefer.

If a bailiff comes into your home they’ll usually make a list of anything of value you have that could be sold to pay off the debts. You can find out what bailiffs can take from your home here. They don’t normally take the items straight away, and will give you the chance to make payments towards the debt in what’s called a ‘controlled goods agreement’.

If you don’t make the payments agreed, the bailiffs can return to take the goods they’ve listed. These will then be sold to raise money to pay towards the debt. It’s important to mention that if a bailiff has already been into your home and made a list of goods they can use force to enter on their next visit.

What can debt collectors do?

Debt collectors don’t have any special powers that can help them to collect a debt.

You might find that they contact you through phone calls and letters however in some cases they may visit your home too.

If a debt collector shows up at your house, you don’t have to open the door to them or let them in. If you ask them to leave, they have to go, and they can’t take anything from your home either.

If you talk to the debt collector, they need to show you ID if you ask. They may ask you to make payments to the debt there and then, however you don’t have to do this. You can do this over the phone with your creditor directly if you’d prefer, so you have control over the amount you can offer to pay.

If you do make a cash payment to a debt collector, make sure you get a receipt and keep hold of it.

Free debt advice

If you’re worried about either debt collectors or bailiffs, get in touch with us for free debt advice.

If you’re unsure whether your creditor is using a bailiff or a debt collector, give them a call to find out what’s going on and they’ll be able to let you know.

If you’ve been receiving letters from a debt collection agency threatening to use bailiffs before any court action has been taken to get you to repay the debt, it may be worth making a formal complaint.