A 19th Century Horror 30

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.

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30 thoughts on “A 19th Century Horror

  • mrjohn

    Hadn’t the person who was owed the debt already gone through the civilized procedures to no avail ?

  • tony_opmoc

    My wife and young child at the time were similarly threatened by a brute on our doorstep demanding entry to remove whatever he felt like.

    The “debt” was about a telephone service that the company had never succeeded in even installing the equipment. They hadn’t even built the local infrastructure. Still they continued sending me bills which grew and I continued to write to them, stating that I didn’t owe them any money as they had never provided any service. Eventually they sold the “debt” off to a Collection Agency.

    As a result of my wife being threatened, I threatened to seriously embarrass this company – by contacting the Managing Director for demanding money with menacies, that they were not entitled to, and also having a hopelessly inefficient customer billing system that was incapable of correcting their own mistakes.

    I could have both taken it to court and the press, but in the end settled for a grovelling apology, small financial settlement and a large bouquet of flowers delivered to my wife.

    She had succeeded in denying them entry. If they had actually gained entry and removed anything then criminal charges would have been appropriate.

    The vast majority of people in this situation will be robbed of what little they have.


  • Reason

    mrjohn at July 28, 2009 10:07 AM:

    “Hadn’t the person who was owed the debt already gone through the civilized procedures to no avail?”

    No, all that had happened was the party who owed the alleged debt had made an application to the court; this was disputed by the debtor but does not appear to have been resolved.

    I think New Labour has recently changed the law to make it even easier for the bailiffs to take ones property.

  • Duncan McFarlane

    Yep – it’s pretty shameful that private firms can make a profit from taking things of a value greater than the actual debt too. Tommy Sheridan managed to get a law banning warrant sales in Scotland passed when he was an MSP, but i think they’ve been reintroduced by Labour and the Conservatives under a new name.

  • brian

    Anyone know of any guidelines, a url maybe, as to what you should do and what your rights are in this situation?

  • Barrie

    I had a similar doorstep stand off with a bailiff over a parking fine that had escalated without my knowledge. This was due to the Borough of Camden mis-addressing their response to my initial appeal letter. One year later a goon turns up to clamp my car and remove it there and then unless I pay him £540. Fortunately, I was in a position to do so, by debit card (how convenient). I had the presence of mind to audio record the bailiff who came out with highly innapropriate ‘advice’ on the appeals procedure. I later got a full refund and the bailiff in question was suspended for 2 weeks and prevented from working on Camden contracts.

    The system of farming out debts is rotten. Do you know HMRC are running trials on passing disputed personal tax arrears to agencies? The horror…

  • Tom

    What ‘legal authority’ must a bailiff have?

    A bailiff must be legally authorised to collect the debt on behalf of the creditor. The authority is normally known as a ‘warrant’, or ‘warrant of execution’ if the bailiff is recovering money owed under a county court judgment.

    Bailiffs used by the magistrates court to collect unpaid council tax, outstanding fines, compensation or unpaid maintenance will be acting on either a ‘distress warrant’ or a ‘liability order’ issued by the magistrates court.

    If you are in arrears, creditors will sometimes send representatives to your home to try and negotiate repayments with you. These people might be called ‘counsellors’, ‘collectors’ or ‘advisers’. They do not have powers to enter your home and seize your goods.

    How do I know it is a bailiff at my door?

    Bailiffs should provide identification or authorisation if you ask them to. Bailiffs collecting for rent must show their certificate from the county court if you ask them to. Bailiffs collecting unpaid council tax must show written authorisation from the local authority. See also ‘Will I get advance notice of a bailiff visit?’


  • Jives

    It’s worse than Dickensian,19th C…

    It’s medieval.

    A change is gonna come though…

  • Jives

    It’s worse than Dickensian,19th C…

    It’s medieval.

    A change is gonna come though…

  • Jives

    It’s worse than Dickensian,19th C…

    It’s medieval.

    A change is gonna come though…

  • Abe Rene

    One more good reason why New Labour will get a thrashing come the new general election.

  • Chris

    The system is ludicrous… At a previous address on Tyneside we received a call from bailiffs from Bournemouth collecting 28p in outstanding council tax. The fact that the tax was collected by direct debit and we didn’t even know that they had miscalculated by 28p was judged to be of no relevance.

    The issue was finally resolved through a local councillor but the amount of money wasted calling in bailiffs from the other end of the country to reclaim 28p must have been horrific. Anyone facing a situation like this has nothing but my sympathy.

  • JimmyGiro

    And these people want our DNA on permanent record.

    It should be sufficient for the defaulter to lose their credit rating in proportion to the debt, or even be forced to hand over specific items that relate to any debt; but to take any item is blatantly unreasonable.

    And if it’s unreasonable, then violent resistance is a fair option.

  • mary

    None of the links to HCE High Court Enforcement, UK Evict, etc are working. What a surprise.


    Martin Leyshon Gordon Dean Michael R Anderson Derek Dean Philip C Evans Paul Dean Angela Egmore Michael Kimber Jonathan Gater Stuart Vann …”



    1. Welcome to the HCE Group

    “Our HCEOs are members of the High Court Enforcement Officers Association Ltd, with 3 members sitting at board level; Martin Leyshon being Vice-Chairman. …”


  • nn

    Welcome to the real world, Mr Murray.

    If such a trifle gives you nervous shakes, you’ll probably be firing a Kalashnikoff in the streets soon when you come to come across just a bit more serious stuff.

    It is a wild wild world out there and it is run by ugly mafias. You must be up to the task at hand to change things and first of all not beeing sheepish and naive.

    Your followers expect you to lead as in the sentence “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”.

  • AA

    Welcome to the real world, Mr Murray.

    If such a trifle gives you nervous shakes, you’ll probably be firing a Kalashnikoff in the streets soon when you come to come across just a bit more serious stuff.

    It is a wild wild world out there and it is run by ugly mafias. You must be up to the task at hand to change things and first of all not beeing sheepish and naive.

    Your followers expect you to lead as in the sentence “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”.

  • Craig

    nn or AA,

    I have hed plenty of kalashnikovs pointed at me, thanks. Plainly you haven’t read my books.

    I was not in the least intimidated. It was not even my debt. My concern is for others who would be, particularly from the growing numbers of unemployed who face debt.

  • dodoze

    The Tribunals, Courts & Enforcement Act was given Royal Assent on 19th July 2007. The integration of extended powers for Bailiffs were little commented upon at the time. Bailiffs can now (eg) break and enter to recover Civil Debt. The matter is not confined to recovery of penalties imposed by Magistrates.

    Another step as we tramp along the road of Corporate Fascism.

  • Andy

    What happened to my earlier comment?

    Re Tribunals, Courts & Enforcement Act this doesn’t as yet allow bailiffs to break in on a first visit. This will require further secondary legislation and the government has said they don’t intend to do this until at least 2012 when the baliff industry will apparently be regulated.

    Mind you it is extremely worrying that this legislation allowing the possibility of the government to increase the powers of bailiffs has been passed at all. New Labour, champions of the working class…not.

  • Matt Wardman

    Welcome to the new world 🙂

    One of the issues is with Courts (paticularly the Northampton “bulk centre”) rubber stamping anything they are presented with, including auto-pubishments generated by a myriad of computers and database.

    It’s a system where escalation and ramping up consequences are far easier than correcting errors – consider the incentive to pay a mistaken parking ticket due to the “discount”, while to get it overturned you have to write letters to the council THEN the ajudicator etc.

    Combine that with databases which are stuffed with errors, and you get the point.

    One example: the SORN database issued around 5 million fines in it’s first 4 years, and 1 million of them were withdrawn on complaint as being wrong.

    What sort of futile overhead is that for a society to carry? The gory details are here:


    Once we start rolling over to petty-oppression we have sold the pass.

    God help us when Safeguarding starts giving the wrong people criminal records.

  • nn&aa

    Dear Mr Murray,

    1. Sorry for the double post aa and nn: bad command of Internet.

    2. Sorry if I conveyed the wrong impression: bad command of English language.

    3. I do not ignore or look down to your past and present fight(s) and what necessarily comes along with it(them).

    4. I agree with you that we must feel deeply concerned about what happens to the weakest of us.

    5. You must admit that this thing you have witnessed is not worth being noted when the task at hand is to blow up the bloody system.

    6. Sorry I added to the waste of time.

    7. Good luck.

  • Stephen Jones

    I remember back in the 1970s coming home to see a small thin man with grey hair and glasses jump out of the bushes and say “Mr. Jones?”.

    “Yes”, I say.

    “Oh, I’m so glad I’ve found you. I’ve been waiting every evening for a week under this tree in the hope you’d come. I’m a bailiff. There’s a magistrates court fine against you. Can I come in to discuss it?”

    So I took him to my flat upstairs and explained that it was the end of the month and I couldn’t pay it, but if he came back next week there’d be no problem.

    “Thank you” he said, “But please have the money and be here. Standing outside in the rain is not the best way to spend your evenings.”

    I must have been one of the few guys to make sure I paid the bailiff because I felt really sorry for him and the inconvenience I’d caused him.

  • David Grace

    So far I have avoided being plagued by bailiffs despite the powers of the Gestapo (usually called the Child Support Agency)to set them on people without being required to prove a debt. Courts simply have to take their incompetent and inaccurate word for it.

    I have been advised that if you yourself are not the person named in the documents, the following line will work: “Some of the property in these premises belongs to me and some belongs to the debtor and I will not tell you which.” The bailiff then cannot take anything. If you are the person named and refuse to say what belongs to you, you are obstructing the court.

  • George Dutton

    August 2nd, 2009

    “The Bastards Never Die”…


    July 28, 2009

    “Profits driving stocks a sign of danger”…


    In the above link…”Profits driving stocks a sign of danger”…Rick Wolff is only part right. He doesn’t see that trade unions in third world countries will not be allowed to organise. Does he think that they will?. Hmmmm…No answers down that road Rick Wolff. The other thing is trade union leaders will just be bought off like they have been here in the west…No answers down that road Rick Wolff.

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