Here's what you need to know about court action.
When you're in masses of debt, the court can take action against you.
How are bailiffs authorised to act?
Before bailiffs can start taking action against you, they must be authorised to act. The kind of authorisation they need will depend on the kind of debt the bailiff is chasing. This page explains how bailiffs are authorised to collect different kinds of debts.
If you’re dealing with bailiff action that began before 6 April 2014, different rules may apply. You should get advice from your local Citizens Advice Bureau.
Can I withdraw authorisation?
In some cases, you can apply to the court for the authorisation the be withdrawn. This is one way of stopping the bailiff action, but you may have other options.
How is a bailiff authorised?
Before a bailiff can be sent to your home, they must receive authorisation from the court or creditor. Some creditors must get authority from the court, while others can issue it directly to the bailiff or enforcement officer themselves. The authority may be in the form of a court order, warrant of control or writ of control.
The bailiff named on the warrant is the only person legally authorised to act on behalf of the creditor. If a different bailiff tries to use the warrant, you can refuse to let them in and make a complaint to the bailiff firm or your creditor.
Do bailiffs have to show you their authorisation?
If you ask to see a bailiff's authorisation, they have to show it to you. You can ask to see this before they come into your home or while they are in there. You can ask to see:
- Identity - evidence of the bailiff's identity
- Authorisation - the authorisation allowing them to enter your home and take control of your belongings
When you're shown the authorisation, check your name, address, the amount owed and that it is still in date. Some warrants expire after a certain time period.
What happens when there is an error on the authorisation?
Where the authorisation is in writing, your address should be correct as well as the name of the bailiff. A minor error on a written warrant won't invalidate it. A major error, such as a completely wrong address, may make the warrant invalid and you should challenge it.
A certain amount of written authority is needed before bailiff action. What written authority is needed by your creditor before instructing bailiffs depends on what debt you owe. You will either owe money for:
- Council Tax arrears and Business Rates
- Parking Penalties
- A County Court Judgement
- A High Court Judgement
- Magistrates Court Fines and Compensation Orders
- Unpaid Maintenance
- Child Support
- Income Tax, National Insurance and VAT
Council Tax or Business Rates
If you have council tax or business rates arrears, the local authority can authorise the bailiffs to take your things away once a liability order has been made by the magistrates court. The bailiff will usually have a letter from the local authority explaining that they're authorised to come into your home and take control of your goods.
For parking penalties, the county court will make a court order that the debt can be recovered by bailiff action. You should get a notice that the court order has been made. 21 days after the court order is issued, the local authority can issue a warrant to the bailiffs which allows the bailiffs to act. The local authority doesn't have to send you a copy of the warrant, although some local authorities will do.
County Court Judgments
If your creditor has a county court judgment against you which you don't pay, they can apply to the county court for an order which allows them to use bailiffs. The written authority from the court is called a warrant of control.
A warrant of control is valid for twelve months from the date of issue. This time limit can be extended by a district judge. The creditor can also apply for a warrant of control if the court ordered you to pay the debt by instalments and all of the following apply:
- You failed to pay the whole or part of an instalment
- There is at least £50 owing on the debt
- There is at least one monthly instalment or a four weekly instalment left to pay
The bailiff doesn't have to show you their authorisation before entering your home. If the court order is to take back goods that belong to your creditor, such as goods you've bought on hire purchase, the authorisation is called a warrant of delivery.
High Court Judgments
If your creditor has a high court judgment against you which you don't pay, the creditor may apply for a writ of control in the High Court. The writ will be issued automatically at any time up to six years after the date of the high court judgment. You'll have no notice that a writ has been requested by your creditor. If the creditor wants to apply for a writ more than six years after the date of judgment, they will need the permission of the court.
The writ will be valid for twelve months from the date of issue and can be renewed if the application is made before the expiry of the writ. The writ will be sent to the enforcement officer for the area where you live or work. It instructs the enforcement officer to take control of enough goods to cover the full amount of the judgment debt, plus interest, plus the costs of the execution. The enforcement officer may employ a certificated bailiff to act on their behalf.
The enforcement officer will act on the writ as soon as possible. If the enforcement officer receives more than one writ to execute against you, they must deal with them in the order in which they receive them. However, if the enforcement officer doesn't follow this rule their action is still valid, although you could sue the enforcement officer if you lose out as a result. If your creditor has a county court judgment of £600 or more, and it does not relate to a consumer credit agreement, they can transfer the judgment to the High Court to be enforced by a high court enforcement officer. In this case, the request for the warrant of execution may go directly to the Sheriffs Lodgment Centre which will then issue a writ.
If you haven't paid a fine, compensation order or costs, the magistrates' court can issue a warrant of control. The court has to tell you that a warrant will be considered, so that you have the opportunity to attend court to make representations about why a warrant should not be made.
If you were convicted in the magistrates' court and the court allowed you time to pay, or ordered payment by instalments, or you didn't attend the hearing, the warrant can't be issued until the clerk of the court has given you notice in writing stating the amount due, the instalments and the date when payment should have been made. The warrant must be sent by the court to the constables of the police area or another named person, usually an approved private bailiff. The warrant must be given to the bailiff in writing.
If you haven't paid maintenance ordered by the court, your spouse, civil partner, ex-spouse or ex-civil partner can make a complaint to the magistrates' court and request that a warrant be issued. A warrant of control may only be issued if you have received a copy of the maintenance order or were in court when the order was made and the warrant was issued at that time.
The written authority is called a liability order. Once the magistrates court has issued a liability order, the Child Support Agency (CSA) can instruct private bailiffs. When the bailiffs are instructed, the Secretary of State will give the bailiffs written authorisation.
The bailiff must show you the liability order before entering your home. When goods are seized the bailiff must also give you:
- A copy of the relevant regulations
- The amount of arrears and charges
- Details of any controlled goods agreement you have signed
- Details of how you can complain
Income Tax, National Insurance and VAT
HMRC Collectors of Taxes and VAT don't need a court order before taking bailiff action. If HMRC Collectors of Taxes want to break into your home, they must get a warrant from the magistrates' court.
For VAT, a warrant of control must be signed by a higher executive officer after a demand notice for immediate payment has been sent to you. The HMRC collector must show the warrant to you if you ask for it. The warrant must be given to the bailiff in writing. For national insurance, the authorisation will depend on which court is being used to enforce arrears. If the county court or the magistrates court, it will be a warrant of control. If it's the high court it will be a writ of control.
What happens when the bailiff is authorised?
When the bailiff receives authorisation to take action against you, they will issue you with a notice of enforcement. This is your official notification that the bailiff action has begun. It will tell you what to expect next and how you can stop the bailiff action.
How do I change a court order for debt?
If your creditor has taken court action against you for a debt, they may have got a county court judgment (CCJ) or other court order against you. The court order means that you have to pay back the money you owe to your creditor, either in instalments or in full by a certain date.
Once you've got a court order, it's really important to keep to the terms of the order. However, it's possible that your financial circumstances could change and you can no longer afford to keep to the terms of the court order. This could happen if you lose your job or fall ill, for example.
If your circumstances change, it's always best to try and get the court order changed rather than falling behind with payments. If you do nothing, your creditor can take more serious action, and depending on the kind of debts you've got, you could end up losing your home or having your possessions taken away. This page tells you what you need to think about if you want to apply to get a court order changed, and how the process works when you've made your application.
If you can't afford to keep up the payments ordered by the court, you can ask to change the terms of the order to fit in with what you can afford to pay. This is called an application to vary the order. Depending on your financial situation, you could apply to the court to pay off the debt in smaller instalments. Or you could say you can no longer afford to pay anything at all. For example, if you have lost your job and money is being taken from your wages to repay the debt, you could ask the court to change the type of order you've got. You’ll have to give details of your financial situation when you make the application.
How do I apply to change a court order?
How you apply to get a court order changed depends on how much you can now afford to pay to clear your debts. If you have some money and can afford to pay the debt off in instalments, you need to fill in court form N245 to apply. This is called an application for an Instalment Order.
You'll have to fill in your financial details on the back of the form and say how much you can now afford to pay. Return the form to the court, with the fee for the application. You may not have to pay the fee or you might get it reduced if you're on a low income. If your creditor agrees to the new offer, the court will make a new order setting out what you offered. There won't be a court hearing.
If your creditor doesn’t accept your offer, court staff will decide what you should pay, according to guidelines produced by the Court Service. They will then make an new order. If you don’t agree with what the court staff decide, you can write to the court and ask them to reconsider the order. You must do this within 14 days of the date of the new order being made. You don’t have to pay a fee to ask the court to reconsider the order and you don’t have to use a special form.
If the claim wasn't issued in your local court, the hearing can be automatically transferred to a court nearest to you. Your creditor could also apply to get the court order changed if they disagree with what the court staff decide. If they do this, the court will arrange a hearing at your local court to decide what’s fair.
You can download court forms from Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service website here. For more information about working out your finances and drawing up a financial statement, see How to work out your budget. You can also use our budgeting tool to fill in an online financial statement. For more information about getting court fees reduced or waived, see Help with legal costs.
What if I can't afford to pay anything at all?
If you can’t afford to pay anything at all, you should apply to get the order changed using court form N244. This is a general application form. You'll need to explain on the form why you now can't afford to make the payments. You'll also need to send in a separate financial statement to show why this is the case. This is a statement showing how much money you have coming into your household, how much you spend and how much you have left over to pay back what you owe.
Put in as much detail as you can to explain your reasons and attach any evidence you have which explains your situation. For example, if you can't work because of illness and this means you don't have the money to pay the debt, try to include some medical evidence, such as a letter from your GP. Return the form to the court, with the fee for the application. You may not have to pay the fee or get it reduced if you're on a low income.
If you can't afford to pay anything at all, your case will be referred to a judge, who will decide what to do at a hearing. It's better to ask for a hearing yourself, so that you have the chance to put your case to the court. There's space on form N244 for you to do this. You can download court forms from Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service website here.
For more information about working out your finances and drawing up a financial statement, see How to work out your budget. You can also use our online budgeting tool to fill out your financial statement. For more information about getting court fees reduced or waived, see Help with legal costs. It can be difficult to get the court to change the terms of a court order. You can get help to fill in the court forms and to work out what you can afford to pay from an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. nearest CAB.
How do I get a court order set aside?
If you don't agree you owe the money or you think there's been a mistake in the way the case has been handled, you could try to get the court order set aside. You can't ask for an order to be set aside if you agreed you owe the money.
If you manage to get the order set aside, this doesn't wipe out the debt. You will still have to repay what you owe and your creditor can still go back to court to chase you for payment. But they may have to start the process all over again and this would give you more time to sort out your finances and pay back the money.
It's very difficult to get a court order set aside and you've got to have a very good reason for asking for this to happen. The judge will decide whether you have a good case. Possible reasons for getting the order set aside include:
- A mistake in the original judgment
- The court did not follow the court rules during the claim process
- The creditor did not follow the court rules during the claim process
- You have a defence to the claim which you were not able to make known earlier
- You weren't able to attend a hearing and a judgment was made in your absence
The judge will decide what’s a good reason for missing a hearing. A sudden illness, accident or other unforeseen circumstances usually counts as a good reason. Or you may have not received the claim forms because they were either sent to the wrong address or lost in the post. If you missed a hearing, the judge will also decide whether your case had a good chance of success, by looking at your arguments and the evidence. You need to make another application to the court as quickly as you can, usually within seven days of missing the hearing.
It can be very difficult to get a court order set aside. You can get help to look at whether you have a good case to ask for a court order to be set aside from an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau.