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The government came under attack this week for stalling the long running review of the bailiff profession. Accordin...
The government came under attack this week for stalling the long running review of the bailiff profession. According to the legal pressure group Public Law Project, the review of civil enforcement agencies, which has been running for more than 18 months, has effectively been dropped from the current legislative agenda by the Lord Chancellor's Office.

Although the Lord Chancellor's Office is saying publicly the review is still under consideration, officials are understood to be admitting privately that a final decision is unlikely to emerge until after the next election.

The reason for delay has been put down to technical problems relating to the role of high court sheriffs. 'We are alarmed it has been put on hold', said Public Law Project Research Director Lee Bridges. 'Bailiffs are effectively in legal limbo'.

Mr Bridges said the government is allowing bailiffs to carry out what in other circumstances would be a serious criminal act of demanding money with menaces. 'To stall the review seems to me to be irresponsible', he said. Uncertainty over the legal position of bailiffs poses a threat to councils, which can be held responsible if bailiffs working for them are deemed to have acted outside their powers.

The Lord Chancellor's Office first issued a consultation paper on proposals for reforming enforcement agencies in August 1992. Responses had to be submitted by the end of October the same year but since then the government has been silent.

There was a strong hint in the consultation paper that the Lord Chancellor's Office would opt for a civil enforcement agency on the lines of the next steps executive agencies being set up approaching privatisation. This would be responsible for regulating the civil enforcement profession.

As well as regulating private sector bailiffs which collect poll tax, council tax and rent arrears for councils, the new body would also exercise control over county court bailiffs and the high court sheriffs.

Once regulation was established it would allow greater competition between the different sectors. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, is understood to be concerned that greater competition could deprive the sheriffalty of vital income, undermining its wider ceremonial role.

In the absence of central government action Mr Bridges intends to convene a meeting of pressure groups to find a way of promoting reform. He believes a standard statutory code of practice should be introduced.

The Institute of Revenues, Ratings and Valuation said it would welcome a move to see the review findings published as soon as possible. 'Although the work of bailiffs is not being held up by lack of progress in the review, we suggest that damage is being caused to the long term viability of distress', said institute director Colin Farrington.

'The poll tax and council tax experience shows us it is necessary to establish proper regulation', he said. A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Office denied the review had been put onhold, saying proposed changes were still under consideration.

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