Author Topic: JBW Ltd's bailiffs at it again. + Your rights to refuse entry explained  (Read 7880 times)

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‘I blocked a bailiff – and paid the price’

When Ronald Grant became involved in a brawl with a JBW ‘enforcement agent’ he was arrested and lost his job. He was later completely vindicated by the Crown Prosecution Service

Ronald Grant caught in the middle between bailiffs and the police. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

 Patrick Collinson

Saturday 15 August 2015 06.59 BST

When a bailiff from one of Britain’s biggest firms of debt collectors called at gymnastics instructor Ronald Grant’s flat last November little did he realise that his life was about to be turned upside down. Within 15 minutes it descended into a hallway brawl, followed by Grant’s arrest, interrogation, and the police charging him with common assault. As a result of the incident, Grant claims his life has been wrecked and he has lost his income.

Yet he had acted reasonably. What’s more, the bailiff was trespassing and should have been arrested following the brawl, according to a later assessment by the Crown Prosecution Service, which led to all charges against Grant being dropped. A police conduct review also found police officers had misjudged the powers of entry available to bailiffs.

Grant’s case – the bailiff was collecting council tax arrears on behalf of Wandsworth council – comes amid a sharp rise in the use of bailiffs by cash-strapped local councils which, campaigners say, are increasingly targeting the “working poor”. In some London boroughs bailiff visits are up 50% over the past year, says a recent report, Too Poor to Pay, by the Child Poverty Action Group and Zacchaeus 2000 trust.

The bailiff firm, JBW, which sent its “enforcement agent” to Grant’s Wandsworth home, vigorously disputes the CPS and police assessment, insisting its agent was not trespassing. In a statement, it said: “The CPS finding of trespass is unfounded and has not been established in a court of law.”

After receiving the investigating officers’ report by the Metropolitan police, Grant made a formal complaint in July to the Independent Police Complaints Commission which is currently examining the case.

What is remarkable about the brawl and Grant’s subsequent arrest was that it was not over his failure to pay his own council tax, although he was in arrears. The initial encounter between Grant and the bailiff concluded amicably. It was when the bailiff asked to go to the upstairs flat, also allegedly in arrears on council tax, that the situation turned ugly. Grant blocked the bailiff’s entry, telling him he should press the outdoor bell and wait for his neighbour to come down. But the bailiff insisted he had a right of entry.

A recording made by the bailiff of what happened next is peppered with inaudible moments, so the full picture is not clear. In a transcript made by the police Grant says: “You are not allowed to force your way into my house” while the bailiff says: “This ain’t your building”. Grant says: “You just pushed yourself past me”, while the neighbour then intervenes, telling the bailiff to leave Grant alone, and ordering him off the premises. “He’s trespassing. Now get out,” says the neighbour, while the bailiff replies: “It’s not trespassing.”

The bailiff then calls the police, alleging he had been assaulted by Grant. But Grant alleges the opposite, claiming that the bailiff had “slammed me into the wall holding me by my neck.”

The police arrived swiftly, arresting Grant and not the bailiff. “During my arrest, a 5ft mum next door was leaving to take her infants to school and, at the time, had not even met me personally. There was now a police car, four police officers and a police van on the scene. The house on my other side had just been sold for £1.5m and the family was unloading their goods into their house. It was not my idea of a good first encounter with my next-door neighbours and I did comment to the arresting officers how embarrassing this was but they said ‘don’t worry about it’.”

Things then went from bad to worse. “I had a job in Fulham and my arrest caused me to be a ‘no show’ and I lost the job,” he says.

At the police station, Grant was charged with common assault, and told to attend court on 12 February this year. But while he was traumatised by the episode, and claims he lost further work while nervously awaiting the trial, the CPS had already decided there was no case to answer. Indeed, it ruled fully in Grant’s favour, suggesting he had been entirely within his rights to use “reasonable force” to eject the bailiff.

In a case analysis, later obtained by Grant, the CPS said: “The defendant quite rightly, and well within his rights, says that [the bailiff] will have to ring the bell and be given access by the occupier. This is both reasonable and within the law. Essentially, [the bailiff] was a trespasser and the defendant is within his right to use reasonable force.”

It goes on to say that JBW’s recording only “corroborates the scuffle” but does not help with what actually happened.

However, in a statement, JBW says: “The enforcement agent was legally at the premises in order to execute a liability order for unpaid council tax. He was not a trespasser at this time. There will be no apology from JBW and no offer of compensation will be forthcoming.”

Grant says he has looked into finding a lawyer to take legal action, but he can’t access legal aid. “They want me to put down a tab of £5,000 to take on my case. I don’t have that kind of money.”

Bailiffs regularly record visits to households on audio devices – but can put obstacles in the way of householders to obtain a copy of what was said. When Grant sought a copy from JBW, its chief executive Jamie Waller said Grant would have to go in person to JBW’s offices in Darlington, 260 miles away.

He said: “The recordings will need to be listened to on site which is in line with our data release policy. I have copied in our audit and compliance director who will make the arrangements for you to visit our Darlington offices.”

The name Jamie Waller will be familiar to some TV viewers. He was the star of a BBC1 show, Cops Cars and Bailiffs in 2008. But, last year, his JBW Group failed in a high court bid to stop a Panorama investigation into debt recovery being broadcast. It had tried to get an injunction after it learned of undercover filming of staff working for the company.

JBW has multiple contracts with government departments and local authorities, including 70% of councils in London. Its website says it has operational offices in London, yet it said that Grant should travel 260 miles from his south London flat to obtain his data.

We asked The Information Commissioners Office if such a request from a bailiff is reasonable. It said: “Basically it is up to the bailiff to provide a copy of the information to the requester. A requester wouldn’t normally be expected to go such a distance to the offices to collect it.” JBW subsequently told the Guardian it “can email the recording so that there is no inconvenience caused to the applicant”.

Puzzling discrepancies emerged from the transcript provided by JBW and sent to the Guardian, and a transcription of the same recording made by the police and seen by the Guardian. In JBW’s transcript the bailiff is recorded as saying: “Hello there, are you Mr Ronald Grant” and says that Grant responded: “He’s not in”. But when the police listened to the tape, they recorded Grant responding: “Yes, who’s talking?”

Later, the bailiff on the JBW transcript says: “If you can excuse out of the way, I’m not, I’m not going to walk past you.” But in the transcript made by the police, the bailiff says: “If you can excuse out of the way, I’m going to walk past you.”

The “This ain’t your building” statement made by the bailiff, and said after Grant says: “I didn’t invite you into my building” is in the transcript made by the police, but is absent from the JBW transcript.

JBW stands by the transcript, which, it says, was listened to by a former policeman working for the group. It said in a statement: “JBW maintains, having reviewed the audio, that its transcript is a true and accurate representation as to what can be heard on the file and can be disclosed.”

The trauma of the incident has left Grant feeling he can no longer stay in his home. “As a child I was looked after by Wandsworth social services. It was a very traumatic time and I am yet to feel at peace. I got this place from the leaving care team but I think I need to leave and start again somewhere else.”

What you need to know if the bailiffs knock at your door

A crackdown on bailiffs was ordered by ministers last year amid concern that the tactics used by some rogue operators – such as blagging their way into homes or lying and intimidation – were leaving householders confused about their rights

Research by the Money Advice Trust in 2012 found that the most common complaint was about bailiffs threatening to return with a locksmith. The next biggest complaint was about lack of protection from the police.

With baillifs increasingly being used for council tax arrears, Citizens Advice said it is called on to help with around 1,000 bailiff problems a week. The Too Poor to Pay report by the Zacchaeus Trust and Child Poverty Action Group last month said: “In our view, bailiffs remain a totally unsuitable enforcement method for council tax support claimants. A referral to a bailiff immediately adds £75 to the claimant’s debt, quickly followed by a further £235 on the first visit. This simply serves to inflate an already unpayable debt. Bailiffs not only increase the claimant’s debts, they frequently act in an aggressive and intimidating manner, which can cause serious emotional and mental distress.”

The advice on the government’s website is explicit:

• You usually don’t have to open your door to a bailiff or let them in;

• Bailiffs can’t enter your home by force – such as pushing past you;

• They can’t enter if only children under 16 or vulnerable people are present;

• They can’t enter between 9pm and 6am;

• They can’t enter through anything except the door.

Bailiffs are allowed to enter your home using force to collect unpaid criminal fines, income tax or stamp duty, but only as a last resort. They can also take things from outside your home, such as your car, and if you don’t pay the debt they are collecting you could end up owing even more money.

According to the police, if you are living in a flat a bailiff can enter the main entrance to the block as long as they do so without using force – this is regarded as peaceful entry. In essence, this could mean that the main door is unlocked or that another person let them in. But once inside the block, they must leave if another residents requests that they do so.

If the bailiff refuses to leave, he or she is committing the civil offence of trespass. In law, if a treapasser refuses to leave a property when asked the owner/representative is entitled to use “reasonable force” to evict him or her.