Memorandum submitted by the Association of Civil Enforcement Agencies, the Enforcement Services Association and the Local Authority Civil Enforcement Forum (TRI 14)
Public Statement by Citizens Advice 5 March 2007
"Abuse of powers by bailiffs set to get
much worse, Citizens Advice warns."
We refer to the above statement made by Citizens Advice on 5th March 2007, subsequently taken up by the media, and question the integrity of its content in relation to the stated Objects of Citizens Advice which claim it is "committed to promoting equality and diversity, to preventing prejudice and discrimination, to ensuring equal access to and promoting good relations between all sections of the community."
As Founding Members of the Enforcement Law Reform Group (ELRG), of which Citizens Advice is also a member, we are deeply offended and outraged that Citizens Advice fails, on both the above underlined claims, to engage in reasonable and civilised debate. Instead it chooses to use inaccurate and sensationalist rhetoric which is clearly prejudicial and discriminatory and does nothing to promote 'good relations between all sections of the community'.
For example, in the statement, Citizens Advice claims to have analysed 500 cases since October 2006 and found that bailiffs were guilty of harassment and intimidation in 64% of them. We suspect that what is probably more accurate is that in 64% of those analysed cases debtors complained that they felt harassed or intimidated but little or no factual supportable evidence was produced. The statement however presented these figures as if they were fully investigated and upheld complaints, an assertion which we seriously doubt.
There is no indication that any of these claims were proven in any civil case or even through complaints to professional associations. Like previous reports from Citizens Advice, the 'evidence' is almost certainly anecdotal and has not been verified, yet it condemns an entire profession.
If a bailiff threatens to seize goods under a court order is that harassment, intimidation or a fair warning of the inevitable and perfectly legitimate next step in a legal process. We fully understand that those debtors may have felt harassed and intimidated but that does not necessarily mean the bailiff was 'guilty' of doing anything wrong.
In the highly unlikely event that the 320 cases were properly investigated and the allegations evidenced that relates to just 0.008% of the estimated 4,000,000 matters dealt with by bailiffs each year. A spin doctor might suggest that in 99.99% of cases bailiffs were compliant; hardly evidence of "an appalling track record".
Inevitably the media, and even MPs, took the statement from Citizens Advice to be fact and have consequently been seriously misled. The media went on to exaggerate the claim by stating that these percentage claims applied to all bailiffs and not just to those in a batch of 500 cases selected by Citizens Advice - hardly a scientifically accepted random sample. As a prime example, the Sun quoted, "But Citizens Advice issued its warning - as it revealed almost two-thirds of bailiffs are guilty of harassment or intimidation."
While we appreciate that Citizens Advice cannot be held responsible for subsequent misrepresentations, it is certainly responsible for publishing an initial falsehood. The statement specifically claims that 64% of bailiffs were 'guilty' of harassment and intimidation. The word 'guilty' implies that there has been a reasonable process to establish the facts and a conclusion reached which resolves that outcome. Perhaps Citizens Advice could provide evidence of such a process in the 64% of cases where Citizens Advice apparently and fairly established such guilt?
Furthermore and specifically, your Martin Broad, manager of Bournemouth Citizens Advice, was quoted as saying: "We are concerned about these proposals because we already receive complaints from local clients who have been harassed by bailiffs. Many private bailiffs already act almost as a law unto themselves with devastating effects on people's lives. Intimidation, harassment and excessive fee charging are commonplace, driving already vulnerable people deeper into poverty and debt." This statement clearly suggests the 'many' bailiffs yet Citizens Advice has no concrete proof of this beyond the anecdotal evidence of only those people who attend its bureaux. It also states that intimidation, harassment and excessive fee charging are commonplace. Commonplace suggests this is the 'norm', the 'usual', whereas there is no evidence to support this. Does Citizens Advice have evidence regarding the entire 4,000,000 cases dealt with each year which would confirm the 'many' rather than perhaps, the 'few'? In fact does Citizens Advice have 'evidence' in any of the 500 cases that it pre-selected for this statement?
Citizens Advice have never acknowledged the fact that through an ACEA/ESA initiative (ELRG 2 February 2006) an appointment was made for the representatives of both organisations to visit the CAB central offices to examine and discuss the "substantiated" complaints that they claimed to hold. Our representatives carried out that visit on 11 April 2006. They were presented with no detail of any individual complaints merely informed that there was 'evidence' of trends in relation to certain (unspecified) bailiff companies. Whilst it was stressed that action could only be taken where evidence supported it, both associations agreed to examine any evidence supplied by Citizens Advice which might lead to an improvement of standards within the industry generally and amongst members of their respective associations in particular. Notwithstanding the lack of evidence presented at that meeting our representatives were happy to suggest that we were prepared to accept any future claims or complaints at regular intervals and review these for trends that might identify companies or individuals. It was also agreed that greater cooperation was necessary and that the meeting should be the first of a series of such investigative gatherings. To date neither the ACEA nor the ESA have received details of a single complaint (from Citizens Advice) that they could investigate and no attempt has been made by Citizens Advice to request or convene a follow up meeting.
We would also observe that many of our members have worked closely with local Citizens Advice offices, as have both associations and we actively advise debtors, through written material and web site, to use the services that Citizens Advice offers. Given the recent comments and publications of this organisation (Citizens Advice) we must reasonably assume that the many instances where the bailiff has advised the debtor to seek the advisory agencies advice are now included in the unsubstantiated examples currently being used in an attempt to discredit the industry!
Moving on, the statement clearly refers to 'private bailiffs' and not county court bailiffs or even High Court Enforcement Officers. Yet, the statement notes, "... the Bill will extend to all bailiffs the power to forcibly enter domestic premises to enforce debts, including consumer credit debts such as credit card bills."
This is at best highly misleading and at worst a deliberate attempt to cause undue concern among the public. The fact is that consumer debt (i.e. credit card debt) is exclusively dealt with by [state employed] county court bailiffs and High Court Enforcement Officers who are not referred to in the statement. A Private Bailiff deals, predominantly, with debt arising from unpaid fines, council tax, business rates, central taxes and parking penalties. As a result of this statement, the media repeatedly headlined this aspect using such phrases as, "Bailiffs could soon have the power to legally break into peoples' homes and seize their belongings over an unpaid credit card bill, a national charity has warned".
In any event, forced entry for consumer debts will only be permitted with specific judicial authority on that particular case. An important point deliberately omitted from the statement.
In conclusion our belief is that:
1. Citizens Advice have again issued an inaccurate and misleading statement which is prejudicial to an entire profession - the bailiff profession - and which discriminates against all bailiffs by stating that "Intimidation, harassment and excessive fee charging by bailiffs are commonplace," when there is no evidence to support such a statement.
2. Citizens Advice, instead of promoting good relations between all sections of the community, has succeeded in damaging relations between debtors (and creditors) and the bailiff profession - all members of the community, and
3. That accordingly, it has breached its own stated objects.
4. Citizens Advice appears to relish publishing examples of what appear, without investigation, to be horrific examples of abuse by bailiffs. Conversely, the bailiff associations do not publish what are proven police investigated instances of violence and abuse towards bailiffs by debtors; the sort of actions likely to be fuelled by the recent statements from Citizens Advice.