Debt and enforcement agents

A couple sitting at a table with some papers, working out their debts
How to deal with enforcement agents. 

We know that dealing with enforcement agents, or bailiffs, can be a really stressful experience. Receiving a letter from an enforcement agency through the post or fearing a knock on the door can be really worrying, especially if you’re not sure what to do next or how you will be able to repay the debt. 

Lots of people in the UK go through the same experience at some point in their lives. In the last two years, 2.2 million people reported being contacted by enforcement agents, according to Citizens Advice. Four in ten of our clients have dealt with or are currently dealing with enforcement agents. 

Commonly asked questions

Take a look at our most commonly asked questions about enforcement agents below and find out how to deal with the situation well.

An enforcement agent (or bailiff) may send you a letter or visit your home if you have certain types of unpaid debts. An enforcement agent has usually been employed by a private firm to collect a debt on behalf of a creditor. Enforcement agents can only be instructed to collect a debt if there has been a court process. 

It’s important to remember that they’re employed to collect debts, not to make your life difficult. Below we’ll explore how best to interact with enforcement agents.

  • In England and Wales, enforcement agents are commonly known as bailiffs, but their official title is enforcement agents. 

  • In Scotland, enforcement agents are called Sheriff Officers. 

  • In Northern Ireland, the Enforcement of Judgments Office (EJO) is responsible for collecting debts.

Please note: a debt collections agent is not an enforcement agent. If the person visiting your property to collect a debt is a debt collections agent/​debt collector then you can ask them to leave. They do not have the same powers as an enforcement agent.

If you’ve received a Notice of Enforcement from an enforcement agent asking you to repay a debt, the first thing to do is to establish where the debt has come from and who was the original creditor. You’ll be able to find this on the letter. For example, the debt could be Council Tax arrears or an unpaid court fine. 

Secondly, contact the enforcement company or EJO and ask if you can agree on a payment schedule. You should be able to find the contact details and phone number on the letter. However, it’s important that you are not pressured into making a one-off or recurring payment that you can’t afford. If you have vulnerabilities or circumstances that might affect your ability to pay like sickness or a change in employment, explain this to the company. You can also check if the enforcement company is legitimate using the bailiff register.

If you’re unable to come to a realistic agreement with the enforcement company, you can contact the original creditor to try to agree to a payment schedule with them. Only agree to pay what you can afford, as any payment plan you set up is more likely to fail if you cannot afford it. If you have vulnerabilities or mitigating circumstances, be sure to explain these.

Try to complete the steps above as soon as possible after you receive the letter, as the longer you leave it the more fees are added to your debt by the enforcement agents. We know it can be daunting, but the quicker you start the conversation with them, the less debt you will have to pay back overall. 

If you’re unable to afford anything in order to make an agreement with the enforcement company, we recommend you seek debt advice as soon as possible. Doing so will ensure you get the help you need for your individual situation.

In England and Wales, an enforcement agent may visit your home if you’ve received a Notice of Enforcement (which will incur a fee) and haven’t responded within seven days. If you don’t respond to the Notice of Enforcement and the enforcement agents visit your home, this will add additional fees to your pre-existing debt. 

For most debts, an enforcement agent can’t enter your home unless you let them in, although they may try to find your vehicle (if you have one) in order to take control of it (see Will an enforcement agent take my car?’ below for more details). 

If an enforcement agent arrives at your home, it’s usually best to not let them in and keep all doors closed and locked, unless they have a right of entry (see below). Speak to them through your letterbox or a window. You can then arrange to phone or email the enforcement agency to create a payment plan. 

There are only a few types of debt where enforcement agents are allowed to force entry into your home at the first and following visits in order to collect the debt:

  • Criminal fines from a magistrates court.

  • Tax debts to HMRC where the enforcement agents have permission from the court to force entry.

  • Collecting a business debt from trade premises.

You’ll be able to tell if your fine is from a Magistrates’ Court from your Notice of Enforcement letter. The letter should say the fine is from the HMCTS. The enforcement agents can only force entry if they can show proof of a warrant or writ to gain entry. A writ is a court order that allows the enforcement agent to enforce debt collection.

Please note: Although Council Tax debts also come from a Magistrates’ Court, enforcement agents for Council Tax cannot force entry.

In Scotland, Sheriff Officers can only enter your home if they have the correct authority and permission to do so with a warrant. Unfortunately, if they have permission they can use necessary reasonable force to enter your home which may mean forcing open a door or breaking a window if you don’t let them in. There’s more Scotland specific advice here.

In Northern Ireland, court judgments are dealt with and enforced by the Enforcement of Judgments Office (EJO), a centralised unit whose powers and procedures are set out in legislation. There’s more Northern Ireland specific information here.

If you let the enforcement agent into your home, they will assess and list what items they can remove that can be sold to repay your debts. This process is called taking control’ of your goods.

You can stop the enforcement agent from removing your goods by either paying off the debt in full or by making a Controlled Goods Agreement (England and Wales only) whereby you would agree a payment plan with the enforcement agent to repay the debt in instalments.

Once a Controlled Goods Agreement is in place, an enforcement agent can only force entry to your property on subsequent visits to collect the goods if the terms of the Controlled Goods Agreement are not kept to (e.g. the payments are not made correctly and on time).

A Controlled Goods Agreement (CGA) is a document that you and the creditor agree to. It essentially secures the items listed on the CGA until the debt is repaid. If you don’t keep up with the payments, the enforcement agent can return to remove the items on the CGA in order to sell them.

Controlled Goods Agreements are only applicable in England and Wales. 

Attachment Orders and Exceptional Attachment Orders are types of court orders in Scotland that allow Sheriff Officers to remove items in order to pay your debts. 

An Attachment Order allows the sheriff to take items from outside your home such as your vehicle.

An Exceptional Attachment Order allows sheriffs to enter your home to seize possessions that can be used to pay off your debts. 

The police will only attend if there’s a risk of danger or breach of the peace. The police won’t enforce debt collection.

A County Court Judgment (CCJ) doesn’t necessarily mean an enforcement agent will visit you. In fact, in most CCJ cases, enforcement agents are not involved. We strongly recommend that you seek debt advice to stop the CCJ escalating to the point that enforcement agents get involved.

Enforcement agents are allowed to clamp and remove cars, vans and motorbikes belonging to the debtor when collecting debts. If they do this then the only way to access the vehicle again is by paying off the debt in full or by agreeing to a payment plan as part of a Controlled Goods Agreement (CGA). The vehicle in question will be secured against the debt with a CGA so if payments are not made then the Enforcement Agent would be able to take possession of it. 

In order to avoid Enforcement Agents finding and clamping/​removing your vehicle it is important to keep it out of sight. We recommend you keep your vehicle in a locked garage or on private land belonging to someone else. Simply parking your vehicle away from your property on another public street would come with a risk: enforcement agents can search public roads and will clamp your vehicle if they find it.

Further help

At CAP, we provide free, professional debt advice specific to all UK nations to make sure you’re able to keep up with your debt repayments. Click here to find help near you. 

National Debtline can provide advice on your rights relating to your specific debt. 

Citizens Advice can provide advice and support in negotiating with enforcement agents on your behalf and may also have knowledge of the procedures in your local area.

Shelter can offer advice if you are at risk of eviction.

For general advice on dealing with Sheriff Officers in Scotland, visit