The government is to try and overturn a House of Lords vote that the Legal Ombudsman’s (LeO) jurisdiction should extend to bailiffs – although the ombudsman himself has said he is open to the idea.
Shortly before Christmas, peers voted 233 to 191 in favour of an amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill laid by crossbencher Baroness Meacher that she said “seeks to provide some protection for vulnerable people who have suffered unacceptably at the hands of a bailiff”.
However, a Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We are disappointed by the outcome of the vote and will revisit this issue when the bill returns to the Commons. We stand by our position in the consultation paper – the government does not believe an independent regulator is needed. Our forthcoming response will deal with this in detail and we remain committed to taking action against aggressive bailiffs.”
However, Chief Legal Ombudsman Adam Sampson told Legal Futures: “While we have never sought to have bailiffs brought under our jurisdiction, and there are issues around the framework of the amendment, we have written to ministers to signal our willingness to discuss the proposition should they decide that they want an ombudsman to take on this role.”
Baroness Meacher said in the Lords that “I should make it clear that the Legal Ombudsman is able and willing to take on this role”, but Mr Sampson said he was not aware of the peer having any formal or informal contact with LeO.
Something of a queue is now developing to use LeO: the Ministry of Justice is planning to bring claims management companies within its remit – although there remains no firm date for this happening – while LeO has confirmed in its newly published draft business plan that once this has been done, it will “explore the possibility” of extending its jurisdiction voluntarily to will-writers, an in October 2011.
Baroness Meacher told the House: “The case for oversight of the bailiff industry and for a grievance procedure delivered independently from bailiff firms has been accepted by previous Conservative and Labour governments. Only an independent complaints ombudsman can deliver redress in a way that is consistent with principles of administrative justice, award financial restitution where appropriate, publish data on good and bad practice and, most importantly, make recommendations for improvements.”
She was backed in speeches by a range of peers, including Lord Lucas, chairman of the Enforcement Law Reform Group, and the Bishop of Lichfield, who said he was persuaded by support for the move from Citizens Advice, the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust and the Money Advisory Trust.
Justice minister Lord McNally argued that the government is looking to tackle problem bailiffs in a number of ways, with a focus on the root causes of many complaints. “Among other proposed reforms, it will improve clarity so that everyone knows where they stand by stipulating when and how a bailiff can enter a property, what they can take and, not least, what they can charge.
“The noble Baroness’s amendment will not address these issues, nor will it supply debtors with an independent complaints process which will meet their needs. The Legal Services Act contemplates a service relationship between professionals, such as solicitors and their clients, which is not present between bailiffs and debtors.
“Under this amendment, debtors would not be able to complain to the Legal Ombudsman because the bailiff is not providing them with a service as required for complaints under the Act. It is therefore neither appropriate nor sensible to try to force the regulation of bailiffs into this framework which is not constructed to address the circumstances in question.”