From 1 June, the process for complaining about enforcement agents (bailiffs) will be streamlined. CIVEA will no longer review complaints on behalf of its members. With CIVEA no longer involved, all complaints about enforcement agents acting on behalf of local authorities will go straight to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman for independent adjudication after local processes have been exhausted.
The enforcement industry has been the subject of scrutiny by the House of Commons Justice Committee, which identified a disparity between the numbers of complaints recorded by debt advice groups and industry groups. Debt advice groups claimed that 2.2 million people had been contacted by bailiffs since 2014, who reported 850,00 cases of rules being broken.
Industry figures show much lower levels of complaints. CIVEA reviews around 250 complaints each year and in a survey, 22 enforcement firms processed approximately 2,500 cases between 2014 and 2018. The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman upheld just 50 complaints in the last four years where the bailiffs themselves were at fault.
Separately, the civil enforcement industry is calling on the government to establish a joint committee in the House of Commons and House of Lords to review the draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill, which would provide a procedure for adjudicating on public service providers, including enforcement agents when acting on behalf of public bodies.
Russell Hamblin-Boone, chief executive of the Civil Enforcement Association, said: “These changes will streamline the process for complaints redress. The expertise and independent adjudication of the ombudsman gives an impartial picture of the scale of any problems in our industry. Three trade associations, local authorities, the courts service, the Local Authority Civil Enforcement Forum and the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman have all recorded low levels of complaints.”
Responding to CIVEA’s announcement, Michael King Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman said: “We already provide independent redress for complaints about the recovery of local taxation and parking debts by enforcement agents. Where a firm is acting on behalf of a local authority, their actions fall within our jurisdiction.
“Clear routes of redress are all the more important for people who want to raise concerns about debt issues they are facing, so we strongly believe complaints processes should be accessible, easy to understand and simple to use.
“We expect local authorities to ensure they have a clear process for dealing with complaints when they contract services out to enforcement firms, as we would with any commissioned service. It’s important this system is not protracted, does not require people to go through multiple complaints processes and also ensures there is appropriate signposting – including to our service – if a person remains dissatisfied with the outcome of their complaint.
“We support any efforts to streamline the current process to ensure complaints are responded to in a timely manner, so we welcome CIVEA’s intention to stop adjudicating complaints on behalf of its members.”