High court enforcement agents – or ‘The sheriffs’ as they are billed on the telly – are the people at the really sharp end of debt collection.
They are the ones who, when all request for payment has failed and all legal process has been fulfilled, have to go and retrieve the money from the business that owes it so it can be put into the hands of the people or business to whom it is owed.
They have the force of the law behind them in the shape of a court order. So if the debtor does not pay up, then the agents can seize goods or equipment, instead, including goods which were bought on finance and have even been partially paid off.
Robyn Baxter, our paralegal, recently spent a day with a team of agents in Nottingham to see for herself how they work.
Of the nine cases they dealt with, most were to do with non-payment of solicitor fees over payment protection insurance (PPI) claims.
If you’re the company chasing a payment, the key thing Robyn learned is that you MUST make sure the address you give the agents for the person or business who owes you the money is up-to-date.
“There are big issues with people not carrying out proper searches before they issue a claim, so the addresses are wrong which creates problems for the agents,” she says.
“We went to one address but the person who owed the money we were chasing had moved out. The new tenant gave us the landlord’s number and it turned out that the debtor was renting another property from them and the landlord was willing to give us the new address, so we could track the person down.
“But this was a lucky coincidence. In other cases, the matter would be referred back to the client to do further checks so take up even more time.”
Generally, says Robyn, people who owe money will often bury their heads in the sand, coming up with excuses like ‘I didn’t receive any letters’ or refusing to answer the door and ignoring phone calls. And some people are simply naive.
“We went to a couple of places where people had failed to pay nursery fees. They hadn’t done it wilfully, apparently. They had just assumed, they said, that the nursery was free . . !”
Debt has escalated
Sometimes, people who have moved house are genuinely unaware they are being chased for a payment and shocked to discover the debt has escalated.
Robyn says: “It is so important that, should you change address and are in the midst of disputing a debt, you should tell the creditor or court that you have moved. In one case I saw, a creditor had obtained judgment and had started the enforcement process and the debtor had no idea until we had traced them and knocked on their door. At that point the debt had risen from £800 to £1,900.”
In all of the cases Robyn witnessed, the debtors were saved by family members who bailed them out by paying the debt with their own credit cards.
“It was a fascinating day all round and I learnt a lot but the most important lesson I can pass on to our clients is the one about getting your own paperwork straight, including sending the agents to the right address, so they can retrieve the money you are owed.”