Few sounds are scarier than the early-morning thumping on your door and rapid pressing of the door buzzer, marking the approach of the debt collector – better known as a bailiff.
It’s a sound I became unfortunately familiar with as I approached the end of my third year at university, along with the sound of legal letters hitting the doormat. Having lost my internship – the only job lead I had post-graduation – and with more money leaving my account than entering it, I’d built an elaborate scaffolding of debt from phone bills, council tax and other expenses.
I still remember the name of the bailiff who served my County Court Judgment (CCJ) because he was the scariest person I’d ever met. CCJs are a court order handed down when requests to repay debt have not been met. Even the prime minister has one – according to Private Eye, Boris Johnson was served with a CCJ in October for an unpaid debt of £535, although I doubt his debt collector banged on the door of Number 10.
After my bailiff entered my house, he yelled instructions from the living room: I needed to set up a payment plan to cover the £700 I owed my phone provider, or they’d start seizing assets from my home. Then he started touching up the consoles and TVs – none of which belonged to me – as if it would inspire me to repay him then and there.
I’m fortunate to have financial security now, but I still feel my throat constrict whenever my doorbell rings unexpectedly. I wonder if there’s a Klarna payment I’ve skipped or if I forgot to pay the water bill this month, assuming doom is imminent. There are also lasting reverberations from a CCJ that I didn’t expect: It’s been four years since I paid my debt off, but I still can’t start a phone contract and I’m unlikely to be accepted for most credit accounts. This is because CCJs automatically remain on an individual’s credit report for six years, with no opportunities to appeal.
The number of CCJs has skyrocketed during the pandemic. With 8.7 million people furloughed and 30,000 people losing their jobs during the first year of COVID-19, debt has become a hallmark of the British experience. According to The Money Charity, people in the UK collectively owed £1,700.2 billion at the end of January 2021, up by £20.1 billion from January 2020. That’s an extra £379 per adult over the year.
Ellie, 23, a student and part-time waitress, has been furloughed during each lockdown. She was also one of many students forced to pay rent for student accommodation despite being unable to live there. While attempting to cover those costs, Ellie started falling behind other responsibilities like credit card repayments, overdraft fees and short-term loans she’d taken out.
The debt slowly crept up on her. In March, she received a county court junction letter notifying her of missed repayment requests, and that she needed to pay £450 as soon as possible. “I knew [the debt] was there, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so much. I thought I’d missed £50 here and there – that’s all.”
Ellie’s family and friends organised a whip-around to cover the costs, so she was able to escape the debt collection process quickly, but – like me – her credit score is unlikely to recover for six years.
In early May, the government introduced a “breathing space scheme” for those struggling with debt, but some organisations feel this isn’t enough. Pete Tutton, the head of policy at StepChange Debt Charity, told VICE: “With the rise in CCJs, it’s important that the government develop a comprehensive package of measures to support people pitched into serious financial difficulty.”
The UK’s debt problem is not unique to the pandemic. The number of CCJs served climbed since 2017. In fact, from January to March 2020, the months preceding the coronavirus outbreak, 112,261 CCJs were served in England and Wales alone.
George, a 28-year-old bartender, was served a CCJ in 2016 after accumulating thousands of pounds of debt to an energy provider. “There was a complicated student accommodation set-up, and I moved out without taking my name off the billing account,” he explains.
His poor mental health meant he struggled to hold down a job and he couch-surfed for years, so debt collection agents couldn’t find him. By the time he moved into a fixed address and the letters reached the right person, George owed over £3,000.
"I felt too ashamed to go to anyone for help because I'd already had financial issues in the past,” he says. “I felt too embarrassed to tell my family because I thought they would think I can't do anything. They still don't know to this day.”
When George was served by bailiffs, he didn’t understand how a CCJ would impact his credit record, and it was never explained to him. It wasn’t until 2019, when he applied for a rental home with his girlfriend, that he found out he was inapplicable to rent without a guarantor.
As he hadn’t told his family about the debt, George nearly lost the home entirely – despite being in a much better financial situation, and not missing any payments for three years.
“My CCJ took months to pay off and I used all my disposable income to do that. After all that grief, I almost lost our home just for having [the CCJ] on record,” he says. “My CCJ almost ruined my life.” Fortunately, his girlfriend’s mother became his guarantor and kept the situation quiet.
Jane Tully, the director of external affairs and partnerships at Money Advice Trust, says that the entire system needs to be fixed. “Urgent changes are needed including introducing independent regulation of the bailiff industry,” she says.
The Financial Conduct Authority – which regulates the financial services industry – was about to examine the process of debt collection and credit referencing, but was forced to delay it thanks to COVID.
But with the pandemic only amplifying the problem of debt for thousands of people, change is well overdue. Like George, Ellie, and the two million others who’ve had CCJs served in the last two years, I never want to owe money to anyone ever again. It’s probably one of the only things that me and Boris Johnson have in common.
If you are worried about your bills or struggling with your financial situation, you can seek free debt advice from National Debtline at www.nationaldebtline.org