County Court Bailiffs – Time For Change?

A County Court Judgment does not necessarily imply that the defendant will make payment of the judgment debt. One of the most common methods for enforcement of a County Court Judgment is the instruction of a County Court Bailiff or High Court Enforcement to collect the outstanding debt either by obtaining payment from the defendant or by seizing and selling the defendant’s assets.

The main differences between the County Court Bailiff and High Court Enforcement are noted as follows:

  • The County Court Bailiff can enforce a judgment debt below £600.00 via a Warrant of Control and can enforce regulated debts.
  • A High Court Enforcement Officer (“HCEO”) can enforce a judgment debt above £5,000.00.
  • A judgment debt between £600.00 and £5,000.00 can be enforced either by the County Court Bailiff or High Court Enforcement.
  • To instruct High Court Enforcement the Judgment must be transferred to the High Court and a Writ of Control obtained.

 

County Court Bailiff – time for a change?

Generally speaking High Court Enforcement are considered to be more effective at recovering debt when compared the County Court Bailiff. This is largely due to the fact that County Court Bailiffs are salaried civil servants employed directly by the Courts, whereas High Court Enforcement are private companies authorised by the Lord Chancellor and their profitability is often dependent upon high collection rates. Additionally, unlike the County Court Bailiff the HCEO is paid on results and if they do not collect the debt then the only charge incurred by the creditor is a fixed ‘abortive’ fee typically of £60.00.

The effectiveness of High Court Enforcement at recovering debt when compared to the County Court Bailiff is supported by the findings published by the High Court Enforcement Officers Association (“HCEOA”) in 2015. The HCEA published its survey results in relation to whether court users wished to see a change to the High Court and County Courts Jurisdiction Order 1991. The results clearly illustrating that court users want the right to choose which enforcement provider to use, without any distinction because of debt type. The results showed that:

  • 17% would consider using High Court Enforcement Officers for the enforcement of Consumer Regulated Judgments.
  • 12% see no justification for maintaining a distinction in the High Court and County Courts Jurisdiction Order between Consumer regulated and non-regulated judgments.
  • 89% would support a change in the High Court and County Courts Jurisdiction Order to remove the prohibition not allowing High Court Enforcement Officers to enforce consumer regulated judgments.

 

Report of Lord Justice Briggs

July saw a report published by Lord Justice Briggs around the Civil Courts Justice Review.

Albeit no firm recommendations were reached when it came to enforcement.

In the report, Lord Briggs considers whether there should be a single court for enforcement and also the unification of enforcement processes. Lord Justice Briggs acknowledges that judgment creditors participating in the consultation were definitely in favour of High Court Enforcement Officers supported by enforcement agents (EA) for physical enforcement as “they are much speedier and more effective modes of enforcement, compared with the under-funded, under-staffed and under-motivated County Court bailiffs.

Throughout the report Lord Justice Briggs was adequate that the answer for physical enforcement was not the county court bailiff route. He commented as follows “… if progress is made towards either the unification or harmonisation of enforcement processes, it would be wholly unsatisfactory to provide only for physical enforcement by state-employed bailiffs on the County Court model, for as long as their service continues to be, as is unchallenged, gravely afflicted in its quality by delays and under-performance.

Briggs also makes the point: “Nonetheless there is at least a real risk that an increase in resources for the County Court bailiff service sufficient to eradicate the current delays would not necessarily deal with all its alleged defects, by comparison with the more incentivised private service offered by HCEOs and EAs.”

In conclusion he acknowledges that the enforcement debate is wide-ranging and well beyond his terms of reference, and recommends that there be a detailed bespoke review, as soon as resources for that purpose permit.

Any developments will therefore depend on what appetite there is in Ministry of Justice to undertake such a review. It is hoped that this will be sooner rather than later to ensure that enforcement services can be made more cost effective and efficient through a creditor’s ability to have more freedom of choice when it comes to enforcement.

Summary

There is argument that High Court officers already collect a significant amount of un-regulated consumer debt. Therefore, there is no plausible reason why they ought not to be able to collect Consumer Regulated Debt. Only time will tell, but there are clear commercial advantages to open up the market.

As a business we have already experienced inordinate delays in the execution of county court warrants in the County Court bailiff system.

Any developments in respect of physical enforcement will therefore depend on what appetite there is in Ministry of Justice to undertake such a review.

 

Lauren Ryan