BAILIFFS in England are breaking the rules on a massive scale and raking in huge fees, all while driving people into deeper hardship, according to new research from Citizens Advice.

The charity is raising the alarm over bailiff behaviour, as its latest cost of living survey found one in four people (27 per cent) have fallen into debt and are now potentially exposed to heavy-handed bailiffs in the near future.

Furthermore, new Citizens Advice polling found, more than two million people were contacted by bailiffs during the last 18 months, with one in three (39 per cent) who came into contact with a bailiff experiencing behaviour that broke Ministry of Justice (MoJ) rules.

This includes bailiffs forcing their way into a home when not allowed, not taking vulnerabilities like disability or illnesses into account, or taking goods needed for work reasons.

Citizens Advice also found 64 per cent of people who had come into contact with a bailiff had experienced harassment or intimidation through doorstep visits, misrepresenting powers, or even threats to break into the property.

With increasing numbers of people falling behind on essential bills, the charity estimates that bailiffs added £250 million in fees to people’s debts during the last 18 months, placing further pressure on household finances.

Half of people (49 per cent) who came into contact with a bailiff said they experienced long-term financial consequences –  such as debts becoming harder to manage, needing to take out more credit and not being able to pay other bills because of bailiff fees.

Almost three in four people (72 per cent) saw their mental health impacted – many left feeling unsafe in their home, afraid to answer the door and even not wanting to leave their house.

John (not his real name) lives with his partner and children. They live in a rural area and have a child who is disabled. Just before Christmas, John was woken up before 6am by a call from a bailiff who was outside his home.

John had a £90 debt for a missed council tax payment and was put onto a repayment plan. The bailiff demanded nearly £500 in extra fees for their visit and threatened to take his car, which they’d already clamped. John was forced to borrow money to pay the bailiff as the family are reliant on their car.

“I missed a payment on my debt repayment plan because my child had been taken to hospital. Yet the council still passed my debt over to a bailiff.

“After receiving the call from the bailiff, I went outside and he was in his car. He wouldn’t get out to speak to me but was being really aggressive and said I had to pay or he’d call for my car to be removed. I told him that I have a disabled child and he basically said he didn’t care.

“In the end, I got someone to come down with a bank card to pay the bailiff through his car window. Once it was paid he got out of his car and removed the clamp. I suffer from PTSD and my anxiety kicked in. It was a really bad day for me. I had to pay back the money I had borrowed which left us short, so other bills didn’t get paid and we’ve been left robbing Peter to pay Paul. ”

Despite repeated calls for the government to regulate the industry over many years, the current Enforcement Conduct Board only provides independent oversight of bailiff firms that choose to be accredited.

Citizens Advice believes that with more people falling into debt, and potentially exposed to bailiff action, a voluntary, self-regulation model is no longer able to meet the scale of the issue. Instead, the charity wants the regulation of bailiff firms to be put on statutory footing.

Dame Clare Moriarty, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Bailiffs are a law unto themselves. Rogue behaviour is making things far worse for people in really difficult situations – sometimes pushing them further into debt.

“Rules are in place to try and ensure bailiffs act fairly to recover debt, but our advisers are hearing from people every day who are being intimidated and harassed by bailiffs breaking these rules.

“This can’t be allowed to continue. Bailiffs have been left to regulate themselves for far too long. We need the government to step up and ensure the industry is held accountable for its actions through a statutory regulatory body.”

* Read: Bailiffs behaving badly: stories from the frontline here.

* Source: Citizens Advice