If a creditor has taken legal action to force the repayment of a debt that you cannot or are unwilling to repay, they can use debt collectors, bailiffs or High Court enforcement officers to retrieve the debt on their behalf.
The end goal for debt collectors, bailiffs and high court enforcement officers is the same. They want to force the repayment of the debt by visiting your business premises, but they have very different powers that dictate the steps they are likely to take.
In this guide, we’ll explain what a High Court enforcement officer is, what powers they have and what your rights are in this situation.
What is a High Court Enforcement Officer?
A High Court enforcement officer is a debt collector who operates in England and Wales and has been authorised by the Ministry of Justice to enforce judgements that are made in the High Court. They can also enforce County Court Judgements (CCJs) over the value of £600. They work to ensure that a creditor whose claim is accepted by the court receives the money they are owed.
HCEOs are authorised under a High Court Writ of Control that follows the non-payment of a debt. That gives them certain powers to seize assets, repossess property and gain entry to a property during the enforcement process under the Taking Control of Goods Regulations 2013. An HCEO has powers over and above that of a bailiff or debt collector but they must comply with a code of practice and professional conduct (pdf) as set out by the High Court Enforcement Association.
When Would a High Court Enforcement Officer be Used?
Two courts are involved in the process of commercial debt recovery. That’s the County Court, which handles lower value claims, and the High Court, which deals with debt claims of over £50,000. However, it is possible for debt claims that are made in the County Court to be transferred to the High Court for recovery. This is commonly the reason why businesses will find a High Court enforcement officer at their door.
High Court enforcement officers are used to enforce County Court Judgements if the debt is more than £5,000 and the creditor wants to reclaim the loss against the debtor’s possessions. If the debt is over £600, has not been paid and it is not covered by the Consumer Credit Act, the creditor can also choose to transfer the debt from the County Court to the High Court. There are several reasons why a creditor would choose to escalate their claim to the High Court:
- Creditors can add 8 percent interest to the debt once it has been passed to an HCEO.
- The fees for HCEOs are much higher, which puts the debtor under more pressure to pay.
- HCEOs have greater powers of enforcement than County Court bailiffs, which makes them more difficult to stop.
- HCEOs are employed by a private company and are paid based on the value of the debt they collect. Many creditors feel that makes them more effective than County Court bailiffs.
What Rights do Enforcement Agents Have?
Before a High Court enforcement officer visits your business premises, you will receive a Notice of Enforcement giving you at least seven days notice that they are going to call. In this instance, you must understand the actions High Court enforcement officers can take before they arrive so you know where you stand.
- Secure payment and removal of goods
The first step for the High Court enforcement officer will be to pay you a visit to try and secure payment or to agree a payment plan. If you cannot afford to pay the debt and a payment plan cannot be agreed, the High Court Writ of Control authorises the HCEO to take control of assets that can be removed and sold at auction.
Rather than removing goods immediately, the HCEO may make an inventory and ask you to sign a controlled goods agreement. You’ll be asked to agree to a repayment plan to pay off the debt and if you don’t keep to the payments, the HCEO will return to remove the goods and sell them to repay the debt.
HCEOs are within their rights to seize business assets (if a limited company) or business and personal assets (if a sole trader or partnership) to the value of the judgement plus interest, court fees and enforcement costs.
- Rights of entry and control
If payment cannot be obtained in full or a payment plan cannot be agreed. The High Court Writ of Control authorises the HCEO to access land and enter buildings so they can take control of goods and assets. The High Court enforcement officers will give the business debtor reasonable time and opportunity to grant them peaceable entry. However, if that is not forthcoming, entry can be forced to a business premises as long as there is no residential accommodation attached and the HCEO has exhausted all other options. If an HCEO does force entry, they must re-secure the premises to the same standard.
What Goods can a High Court Enforcement Officer Seize?
Business assets that can be seized by HCEOs include:
High Court enforcement officers are not permitted to take ‘tools of the trade’ worth up to £1,350 in value. These are the tools and equipment used in your trade or profession. Any equipment exceeding this value can be seized.
If the business is a limited company, a High Court enforcement officer can only take items that belong to the company and not goods that are leased or on hire-purchase agreements. A director won’t be pursued personally unless they have signed a personal guarantee for the debt that’s being enforced.
What is a High Court Writ?
A High Court Writ, also known as a Writ of Control, is the documentation that gives an HCEO the power to visit your business’s premises to recover a debt. It gives them the power to remove goods to the value of the County Court Judgement plus 8 percent interest and the High Court enforcement officer’s fees.
Under the terms of the writ, notice of enforcement must be served 7 clear days (excluding Sundays and Bank Holidays) before the HCEO can attend the address.
How do you Stop an Enforcement Officer?
The simplest way to remove the threat of a visit from High Court enforcement officers is to repay the debt in full within seven days of receiving the Notice of Enforcement. If you cannot afford to pay the debt in full, contact the creditor and the High Court enforcement officers before their visit to try to agree on a plan to pay the debt in instalments. If you receive a visit from an HCEO, more fees will be added to the debt, so it’s best to start making the payments as soon as possible.
If you can’t come to an arrangement and believe that you have valid grounds, you could apply for a stay of execution to set the judgement aside. The court may agree to put a temporary stop on enforcement if you can show that:
- You did not know about the judgement (from example if you changed address); and
- You have a reasonable prospect of success at defending the original claim
To apply to have a High Court Writ set aside, you must download and complete form N244 from the HM Court Service website, make a witness statement and send it to the High Court in London. There is a £100 fee for making the application.
What are High Court Enforcement Officer Charges?
If a Writ of Control is issued against you and you have no valid grounds to dispute it, you will have to pay High Court enforcement officer fees. That is in addition to the debt itself, the court fees and any interest due. The charges added by the High Court enforcement officers increase the further into the process you go. For that reason, if you can pay the debt, it’s beneficial to do so at your earliest opportunity.
There are four stages of the High Court enforcement procedure as set out below:
- Compliance Stage – Pay the debt in full after receiving the Notice of Enforcement and before an HCEO attends in person and you will pay £75 plus VAT in fees.
- Enforcement Stage 1 – If an HCEO attends your property. a payment plan is entered into and a controlled goods agreement is signed, the fee increases to £190 plus VAT plus 7.5% of amounts over £1,000.
- Enforcement Stage 2 – If you refuse to make the payment, enter into a controlled goods agreement or do not stick to a payment plan that you’ve already agreed, £495 plus VAT will be added to the debt.
- Sale or Disposal Stage – If goods have to be removed and sold to satisfy the debt then £525 plus VAT plus 7.5% of amounts over £1,000 will be added to the debt. Additional charges can also be added to cover the cost of locksmiths, storage and auctioneer fees.
Have you Been Contacted by High Court Enforcement Officers?
If you have been served with a Writ of Control or would like more information about the powers of High Court enforcement agents, please contact our team immediately. We can provide confidential and no-obligation advice to help you understand your position and apply for a stay of execution if it’s applicable.