Bailiffs are breaking the rules: what needs to happen now for bailiff regulation to be effective?

StepChange Debt Charity
StepChange Debt Charity
4 min readFeb 21, 2024


By Mark Haslam, Public Affairs Manager

Earlier this year, StepChange featured in a BBC Radio 4, File on 4 investigation, ‘Bailiffs Behaving Badly’. The programme showed how referrals to bailiffs in England and Wales have risen by nearly 20% for council tax debts in the last 12 months.

The programme is well worth 30 minutes of your time. You hear bailiffs blowing the whistle on unfair tactics, incentives that have no place in the modern world, and industry chiefs blaming Government for not getting on with reform.

The programme featured shocking reports about bailiffs illegally pressuring people in debt. Reports that align with what StepChange advisers see day-in, day-out when helping clients who face a bailiff at the door.

The programme laid it all out there — in all its gory detail.

At StepChange, while we were delighted by the high-profile focus on the bailiff industry, many of our advisers barely raised an eyebrow. Frontline debt advisers have seen their share of bailiff bad practice: we see this kind of thing every day.

We know too well that bailiff behaviour falls short of what should rightly be expected.

The stats tell their own story. Out of two million people contacted by bailiffs in the last 18 months, one in three experienced bailiffs breaking Ministry of Justice-set rules. This includes people who are vulnerable being made to pay more than they can afford, often due to bailiff threats and intimidation.

StepChange is proud to support the Enforcement Conduct Board, the new body set up to provide oversight of the bailiff sector. Together with colleagues and our frontline debt advice partners, we’ve been supporting the ECB with valuable insight while lobbying politicians for change.

This year could be a key turning point for bailiff regulation with the ECB stepping up its work with creditors and enforcement firms, a General Election on the horizon and Ministry of Justice review underway.

Bailiffs behaving badly: vulnerability unfairly dealt with

The experiences of our clients, shared by our advisers, give officials an important lens on problems in the bailiff industry. We currently provide this to the ECB while protecting client anonymity.

Our recent client experience submissions to the ECB have had a key theme of vulnerability.

Juliet’s story*

One such case features Juliet, a StepChange client in council tax arrears with mental health difficulties and a terminally ill family member. After receiving a letter threatening bailiff action, Juliet rang up to make a financial arrangement.

Despite Juliet’s best efforts to find a solution, the enforcement agent dismissed her payment offer as ‘unreasonable’ and told her to get friends or family to foot the bill. This happened despite the bailiff company being made aware of Juliet’s vulnerabilities — including a recent suicide attempt.

This kind of bad behaviour by bailiffs is not unusual.

Molly’s story*

Molly is a client who suffers with mental health conditions. Molly told our advisers that despite this the bailiff told her that she would go to prison if she didn’t grant them permission inside her home. The stress this caused Molly triggered flashbacks of domestic abuse she had recently suffered.

Poppy’s story*

Poppy was experiencing severe anxiety over bailiff debt collection when we took her call. The bailiff had said to Poppy her car would be taken away if she did not pay her council tax arrears — yet the demand was at a rate that was far more than she could afford. Poppy ended up having a late-term abortion due to the stress of her financial situation.

The Enforcement Conduct Board: why we need statutory regulation

The Government’s role in addressing this pattern of bad bailiff behaviour is crucial. Our frontline debt advisers see a disproportionate number of financially and otherwise vulnerable people facing aggressive and unfair enforcement action. The current system fails to offer robust protection.

So, we welcome the establishment of the Enforcement Conduct Board as a step in the right direction. It has set out plans to grip key issues around affordability and vulnerability. It’s looking to make it easier for people to submit complaints.

Yet there are limits to the current voluntary regulation approach. How far can the ECB’s writ run when tough decisions need to be made? How can it secure its funding and independence? Outside of legal powers, how exactly will its new levers work?

The MOJ is looking at what the ECB needs from statutory backing, and how it could support a nimble, flexible and innovative regulator. We believe the MOJ should accelerate its review so that Ministers can establish a legal footing for the ECB straight away.

A statutory regime would complete the promise that the ECB holds out. It would give the new regulator the legal powers it needs to fulfill its potential. To get on top of unacceptable bailiff and bailiff company behaviour. And to improve standards for all.

This year, as the ECB gears up for action, and with the country looking to go to the polls, it feels like maybe, just maybe, important change is on the way. It’s been a long time coming, but people subject to intimidating bailiff action, people like Molly, Poppy and Juliet, can’t wait any longer — they need and deserve our protection.

*Names have been changed for privacy



StepChange Debt Charity
StepChange Debt Charity

We provide free, impartial debt advice and solutions to anyone struggling with debt problems in the UK.