Money Wellness
Bailiff standing at entrance to home

Dealing with bailiffs for council tax arrears

If you have council tax arrears, the local authority can use bailiffs (officially known as enforcement agents) to try and collect what you owe.

Find out:

  • the steps your local council has to take before turning to bailiffs
  • what bailiffs can and can’t do
  • how to deal with bailiffs

The information in this guide relates to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has sheriff officers rather than bailiffs. They work a little differently.

Will bailiffs turn up to collect council tax arrears?

If you fall behind with your council tax payments, it’s possible your local authority will use bailiffs to try and collect what you owe. But they won’t do this straightaway. There’s a process that they need to follow.

The steps your council are likely to take are:

  1.  Get a council tax liability order

Before turning to bailiffs, your local council will first need to apply to the magistrates’ court for a liability order. This is a court order telling you to pay the council tax arrears.

The council will add any court costs they’ve had to pay to the amount you owe.

There is no time limit for the council to enforce the liability order.

  1. Send an information request

If you don’t pay the amount set out in the liability order, your local authority may then ask for certain information to help them decide how to recover the unpaid council tax. This is known as an information request.

The council must write to you to ask for this information.

They may ask you to tell them:

  • your employer’s name and address
  • how much you earn
  • about any pay deductions e.g. an attachment of earnings order
  • the work or identity number your employer uses
  • whether anyone else is responsible for the council tax debt

You have 14 days to give the council any information they ask for. It’s against the law to ignore the request or give false information.

  1. Start enforcement action

Once the council has a liability order in your name and they’ve asked for any extra information they need, they can take action to try and recover the money you owe. This is called enforcement action. It may include:

  • using bailiffs
  • taking the money from your pay (deductions from earnings)
  • taking the money from your benefits (deductions from benefits)
  • securing the debt against a property you own (charging order)
  • applying to make you bankrupt
  • imprisonment

The council can only take one type of enforcement action at a time for each liability order in your name. Using bailiffs and taking the money from your pay are the most common forms of action.

How do bailiffs try to recover council tax debt?

Bailiffs will try to take belongings they can sell to pay off your council tax debt.

They will make a list of anything you own that they could sell to pay off your debt. This is known as ‘taking control’ of your belongings.

They usually come to your home to do this but they might ask to do it remotely by video call.

You can stop bailiffs taking control of your belongings by paying what you owe in full.

If you can’t afford to do this, a controlled goods agreement is a repayment plan that will also stop them taking your belongings – providing you stick to the agreed payments.

If you don’t make the payments under a controlled goods agreement, the bailiffs may then take your belongings.

What rules do bailiffs collecting council tax debt have to follow?

Local authorities usually use private bailiffs to recover council tax debt.

A bailiff must have a certificate from the county court. Check if a bailiff has a current certificate on the Certificated Bailiff Register.

Before visiting, a bailiff will send a letter (a notice of enforcement). They need to give you at least seven working days’ notice.

Bailiffs collecting council tax debt need to carry identification and written permission from the council. Ask them to show you this.

Can a bailiff force entry for council tax debt?

Usually, bailiffs recovering unpaid council tax are only allowed to enter your home:

  • through a door
  • without aggression
  • with your permission

They aren’t allowed to enter your home if: 

  • no-one is in; or
  • the only people there are under 16 or vulnerable e.g. due to a disability

Bailiffs aren’t allowed to visit you between 9pm and 6am. They can’t break in or push past you. If bailiff threatens you physically, call 999.

They’re only allowed to force their way into your home if:

  • you've made a controlled goods agreement and you’ve missed at least one payment; and
  • they've given you at least two days’ notice that they’re coming to inspect or take your belongings.

How many times can a bailiff visit for council tax arrears?

There’s no official limit on the number of visits bailiffs can make to try and recover council tax debt. It’s their job to collect the money you owe, so they will do everything within their power to do so. After numerous attempts, if they’re unable to enter your property or take control of your belongings, they may eventually return the warrant to the council. The council may then try another form of enforcement action.

If you feel harassed by bailiffs visiting your property too often, you can make a complaint to the bailiffs’ employer. You should send a copy of the complaint to the council.

If you’re unhappy with the response, you can escalate your complaint to the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman or the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales.

Do councils write off council tax debt?

Local authorities will write off council tax debt in certain situations. If you’re suffering from severe financial hardship or a severe mental or physical health condition, your council may agree to write off some, or all, of your debt.

They do this under Section 13A of the Local Government Act. This gives councils the power to offer discretionary relief.

Your local council will have its own Section 13A policy.

If you think you qualify to have some, or all, of your council tax debt written off, you can apply to your local council.

You should:

  • write a letter asking for discretionary relief
  • quote Section 13A of the Local Government Finance Act 1992
  • provide a budget showing you’re unable to pay

Councils must consider all applications for discretional relief. If you need help making a budget, we can assist with this. Get in touch for debt advice and budgeting help.

Are there any other ways to get council tax debt written off?

You may also be able to get council tax arrears written off with certain debt solutions. A debt relief order (DRO) or bankruptcy will write off council tax arrears.

You may also be able to get council tax arrears written off as part of an individual voluntary arrangement (IVA) This is not guaranteed though. Your local authority must agree to council tax arrears being written off.

DROs and IVAs are only available in England and Wales.

Advice on bailiffs and council tax arrears

Council tax is a priority debt. As we’ve seen, there can be serious consequences if you don’t pay. Local authorities tend to act quickly when payments are missed. This could result in bailiffs turning up at your door.

It's important to get debt advice as quickly as possible if you find yourself unable to pay your council tax. Getting advice early could help stop the situation getting worse.

If you’ve already been told that bailiffs are going to pay you a visit, get in touch for emergency support.

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