Last Wednesday, the day before the by-election, I had my first ever encounter with a bailiff – and highly unpleasant it was.
As it happens, I was not the target. I had rented a large house in Norwich to serve as a campaign HQ, and for the rest of the summer as a haven while I crack on with my next book, Sikunder Burnes. The bailiffs were after the landlord of the property.
The debt in question had started at £700, and is disputed by my landlord. I don’t know the rights and wrongs, but he had lost what he says is but the first court skirmish. His creditors had immediately set the bailiffs upon him. One consequence of this was that a £700 debt had grown to £2,700 with court, legal and bailiff costs added.
The bailiff himself was a large man, with the build and manner of a night club bouncer. To call him aggressive would be unfair, but intimidating and extremely pushy would be fair. The landlord, of course, was not around.
The bailiff introduced himself as a “High Court enforcement officer”. But close inspection of his paperwork indicated that he worked for a company named “High Court Enforcement Group Ltd”, as opposed to working for the High Court. All of his paperwork bore the stamp “High Court Enforcement Group”. I could find nothing with the stamp or signature of an actual judge.
He told me that he was entitled to remove all the contents of the house (which I had rented furnished). I told him I was not satisfied with his paperwork. A standoff of several hours ensued, and eventually a policeman was called. The policeman said the bailiff’s warrant was valid, and this did indeed entitle him to remove all the contents of the house.
I am still not convinced the polceman was right. My brother, who is also a polceman, had told me that I should not accept anything other than a Notice of Distress signed by a judge or court official. This bailiff had nothing signed by anyone other than his own company, though the paperwork did refer to a supposed judgement of a court. But the local policeman was backing the bailiff up.
What was even more extraordinary was his apparent entitlement to remove all the contents of the house. This is a distinguished old place, and there are several individual items each worth more than the debt. The total value would be many, many times the value of the debt. Presumably there was a commercial incentive for High Court Enforcement Group Ltd to take away as much as possible, irrespective of the actual debt.
In the end, I managed to argue past 6pm when the bailff knocked off, and the next morning the landlord arrived with the cash.
But I must emphasise how unpleasant the experience was. I am not accusing the bailiff of doing anything wrong, but he was plainly chosen because he was of a very large, shaven headed, bulging muscled, physically intimidating type. Nadira and baby Cameron were alone in the house when he first came.
For a private company to be allowed to call itself “High Court Enforcement Group Ltd”, and effectively try to pass itself off as an arm of the High Court, must be wrong. I cannot understand how paperwork stamped and signed only by a private firm can be sufficient to enter a home and remove its contents, whatever the policeman said.
In The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Peter Finch gives a brilliantly moving portrayal of the poet. One of the strongest scenes, which has remained with me, is when the bailiffs move in on Wilde’s home to enforce a warrant sale after his legal losses.
I am horrified that we treat debtors still with comparable 19th century brutality. Presumably a great many of the bailiffs’ targets are comparatively poor people. The threatening invasion of homes and ripping out of family belongings must tip many over the edge. It is worth noting that many of the items removed by bailiffs from the poor will be exactly the sort of things – televisions, garden ornaments, dinner services – that MPs were buying in highest quality on the taxpayer.
This way of dealing with debt truly is a barbarous survival, and must be ended.