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Watchdog warning over use of baliffs

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A watchdog has warned councils to better police their baliffs amid reports of a hike in the number of complaints.

The Local Government Ombudman found fault with almost a third of baliff-related cases in 2010-11 compared to 23% of cases related to local taxation.

“The local government ombudsman is finding fault in a higher proportion of complaints involving baliff action than in other complaints about local taxation or parking enforcement,” the watchdog says in its report.

Advice agencies had also become worried about the way baliffs deal with vulnerable people, the ombudsman says. “Citizens Advice has expressed concerns to us about the actions of baliffs, in particular the level of charges they make and their behaviour towards vulnerable people.”

The report highlights cases where baliffs have charged inappropriate or unreasonable fees. One was found to have overcharged a debtor £300. In another case, a debtor was billed an “unreasonable” £230 for the removal of a doormat.

Dr Jane Martin, ombudsman and chair of the LGO, said baliffs were sometimes the first person to meet a debtor on behalf of the council. “It is essential that bailiffs are alert to possible vulnerabilities and that they report any concerns back to the council.”

Councils should both take final responsibility for bailiffs’ actions and ensure that complaints are handled appropriately - even when they are employed under contract, the ombudsman says.

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