Debtors' Rights - High Court Takes to Task Bailiffs Who Overstepped the Mark

Judgments for debt would hardly be worth having if there were no bailiffs to enforce them. However, as a High Court ruling made clear, they have to abide by stringent rules and do not have carte blanche to trample on debtors' rights.

The case concerned a modest judgment debt of about £1,500 which was owed by one company to another. The latter instructed a firm of certificated bailiffs to enforce the judgment. A writ of control was issued to a High Court enforcement officer who delegated her powers to the firm but who remained under a duty to supervise the enforcement process.

The bailiffs' subsequent seizure of a van and a power boat, with a view to their sale in satisfaction of the debt, was filmed by a TV crew for a series concerning the work of bailiffs. The debtor company, however, launched proceedings against the firm and the officer on the basis that they had exceeded their lawful enforcement powers.

In upholding the claim, the Court found that neither the debtor nor its owner had been served with a notice of enforcement. Both the van and the power boat had been seized from private property, yet no warrants had been obtained. The power boat did not in fact belong to the debtor and, although the company and its owner were legally distinct, the firm had treated them as one and the same.

In finding that both seizures were quite clearly unlawful, the Court noted that a writ of control is not to be regarded as giving bailiffs a free rein to act with impunity. The multiple breaches of procedure and the dismissive and lackadaisical attitude of the firm was astonishing. The Court recommended that the conduct of the firm's operatives be investigated and that consideration be given to terminating the officer's authorisation to act as an official court enforcement officer.

The Court's decision entitles the debtor to damages, which have yet to be assessed.

The debtor company and two co-owners of the power boat had lodged their own claims and were entitled to compensation for unlawful interference with goods. The owner's claim that televising the enforcement process amounted to an invasion of his privacy, in violation of his human rights, was stayed pending final determination of the principal proceedings.