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i This applies to England and Wales only

What is the difference between bailiffs and debt collectors?

People often ask what bailiffs and debt collectors can do. Both can come to your home, but they are not the same.

The most important thing is:

  • A debt collector has no special legal powers to collect a debt
  • A bailiff does have special legal powers

We will break down:

  • What each can do
  • When they can be used

In Scotland sheriff officers are similar to bailiffs. They have some different rights and powers.

What is a bailiff?

'Bailiff' is the old name for what are now called enforcement agents.

A bailiff or enforcement agent has legal powers to collect a debt. They can be:

  • Working for private companies
  • Self employed
  • Working for the council

They collect things like:

These debts are a priority.

Bailiffs can legally:

  • Visit your home
  • Remove things you own
  • Sell them to pay off your debt

What is a debt collector?

A debt collector works for either:

They are also called:

  • Doorstep collectors
  • Field agents

The people you owe might send a debt collector to your home. This is rare.

Collection agents cannot:

  •  Take anything from your home
  • Force you to make a payment

They can only ask you to make a payment arrangement.

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When can a bailiff collect a debt?

In most cases, a bailiff can only be sent to your home after court action by:

  • Magistrates’ court
  • High Court
  • County Court

But this is not the case for these debts:

  • HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)
  • They can use bailiffs without court action

A bailiff is normally used if:

  • You ignore a letter from the court, or
  • You do not set up or keep to a payment agreement

When can a debt collector collect a debt?

Some debt collectors work for the people you owe. This means:

Debt collection agencies also buy debts from creditors.

  • This usually happens if you default on payments

Call the people you owe to find out:

  • Who owns your debt
  • Who to make payments to

How many times can a bailiff visit?

There is no formal limit on the number of visits a bailiff can make.

  • They will usually call several times
  • They will return the warrant to the court or local authority if they cannot:
    • Enter your property or
    • Take goods

Make a complaint if you feel a bailiff is:

  • Harassing you
  • Visiting your home too often

Find out about making bailiff complaints.

What debt can bailiffs collect?

County court debts are the most common. But this only happens:

  • After your creditor applies for a CCJ, and
  • You do not pay the amount the court told you to

Bailiffs also collect a number of government or council debts like:

  • 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
    • Tax credit overpayments

What debt can debt collectors collect?

Debt collectors collect most types of commercial debt, like:

They can also collect:

  • Debts to your local council
  • Unpaid loans to an individual

What can bailiffs do?

Bailiffs must send you a letter telling you of their visit.

  • This is called a notice of enforcement
  • You should get it seven clear days before the visit, allowing for weekends

You should have at least 9-10 days to either:

  • Pay the debt in full, or
  • Come to an arrangement to repay the debt in instalments

The bailiff will visit if you do not do either of these.

A bailiff can only enter your home:

  • Through a door
  • In a peaceful way
  • With your consent

They must let you know who they are and why they are there.

Bailiffs cannot:

  • Use force to enter your home, except for:
    • Criminal fines
    • Some tax debts
  • Break down your doors
  • Push past you to get in
  • Enter if there is only a child under the age of 16 at home

Once they are inside, they can make a list of goods to later sell at auction.

In most cases we recommend that you do not let them in.

Bailiffs can use force to collect a criminal fine.

  • This is a last resort
  • This is very rare

Bailiffs can use force when collecting tax debts for HMRC.

  • They need court permission
  • This is rare

Bailiffs have more powers when they collect from a business.

They can break in if you:

  • Are self-employed
  • Own a shop or workshop

What do I do if the bailiff is outside?

You have every right to:

  • Lock the door
  • Talk to them through the letterbox or an upstairs window

When a bailiff comes into your home they:

  • Make a list of any items of value you have
  • Give you a chance to make payments with a ‘controlled goods agreement’.

It is rare for them to take things right away.

Find out what bailiffs can take from your home.

Bailiffs can return to take things if you do not make your agreed payments. 

They sell your items to pay the debt.

Remember: Bailiffs can force entry on their next visit if:

  • They have already been in your home
  • They made a list of goods

What can debt collectors do?

Debt collectors do not have any special powers to collect a debt.

They can contact you by:

  • Phone calls
  • Letters
  • Home visits (less common)

When a debt collector shows up at your house:

  • You do not have to open the door to them or let them in
  • They have to go if you ask them to leave
  • They cannot take anything from your home
  • They must show ID if you ask

They may ask you to make a payment right away, but you do not have to.

  • Call your creditor to make an arrangement
  • This gives you more control over what you offer to pay

Make sure to get a receipt if you do pay cash to a debt collector.

Free debt advice

Get free debt advice if you are worried about debt collectors or bailiffs.

Ask the people you owe if they are using a bailiff or a debt collector.

Make a formal complaint if:

  • You get letters from a debt collection agency
  • They threaten bailiffs
  • No court action has been taken