Understanding the nature of enforcement complaints.
Enforcement Agents carry out essential duties in challenging circumstances and always aim for the highest standards. However, there are occasions when people feel the need to complain. CIVEA takes all complaints we receive seriously and as the primary trade association for civil enforcement agencies, representing more than 95% of the industry, we ensure that our members have robust complaints processes that comply with our code of practice. Our members are proud of the traditionally low levels of complaints.
We previously published a blog that explained the CIVEA complaints processand in this article we are providing further insight into why people complain why some complaints are not upheld.
We understand that a visit from an enforcement agent can be distressing, but it is often necessary as a last resort. Enforcement is the final stage of an extensive process of debt collection, in which the court has issued a warrant or order instructing an enforcement agent to take control of goods in lieu of payment. This is a legal obligation and resenting the obligation to overdue debt is not, by itself, a valid reason to complain
An increase in the number of referrals to Citizens Advice in recent years appears to be a negative outcome and it has been suggested that this relates to falling standards. The opposite is true. Since 2014 it has been mandatory for enforcement agencies to refer people to debt advice providers, so it is encouraging to see that this initiative has resulted in an increased number of people receiving debt advice after being referred in person or through correspondence. The cases that are recorded as complaints are often simply inquiries for advice, which is an important distinction.
Some of the common misunderstanding about enforcement stems from complaints made by debtors who have reported their experiences to debt advice agencies. These reports give the impression that agents act aggressively, are inflexible and are quick to charge for an enforcement visit and turn up without warning. However, system records and video footage show unequivocally that the reports from debtors are often selective and miss out important details. This is not surprising given the complexity of the process. Rather than being aggressive, agents are trained to be assertive and command authority in order to carry out their duties. Rather than being inflexible, over half of overdue debt is paid through affordable payment arrangements. Rather than being quick to charge for a visit, the statutory fee structure is geared for early engagement to reduce the risk of excess charges. Rather than attending without notice, enforcement agencies must attempt to make contact by phone, email, text and letter before authorising an enforcement visit.
This is not to say there is no room for improvement in complaint handling when legitimate complaints are registered, and we continue to strive for efficient processes that are responsive to people’s concerns.
We can ensure that standards of conduct are without reproach through close supervision and constant monitoring. For example, all enforcement agents are required to pass an exam to qualify for certification and the final decision is made by a judge. The exam tests an agent’s knowledge of the law as well as the industry standards they must meet. Certificates must be renewed every two years. Agents usually wear body-worn video cameras to record their visits on film. This is helpful to ascertain the actual sequence of events behind reports of complaints of misconduct. With every visit captured on film, body-worn cameras are also a way to protect agents and the public. We recently published a blog on violence towards EAs and explained how these recordings can and will be used as evidence in court. Film footage is constantly reviewed to monitor agents’ conduct and performance and vehicles are often tracked by satellite and phone use monitored and recorded.
It is this extensive supervision and monitoring that enables CIVEA to rule decisively when complaints are brought against enforcement agencies. In the vast majority of cases, standards have been upheld and agents are found to have acted responsibly.
Many of the low level of complaints that arise are a result of a lack of understanding of the enforcement process, rather than the conduct of the enforcement agent. For example, complaints that a debt was enforced while a fine was being contested with the council. At this stage, unless the council instructs otherwise, the enforcement agency must execute the warrant to collect the debt. Many complaints are simply an expression of frustration with the law.
The most recent (pre-coronavirus) figures from the Local Government Ombudsman indicated that out of over 76,000 complaints recorded in over a four year period, only 540 were attributed to enforcement activity. Of those investigated just 36 cases were upheld, mainly for technical breaches of regulations and none for aggressive or intimidatory behaviour. During this same timeframe, CIVEA members dealt with over 10 million warrants for Penalty Charge Notices and Local Authority Liability Orders for Council Tax and Business Rates. We have been encouraged by the extremely low level of complaints since visits resumed in August 2020 (of which over 70% that have reached resolution have not been upheld). We expected to see more complaints because enforcement visits had continued, but the public have been reassured by the precautions taken that are set out in our COVID-19 support plan. We provide data regularly to the Ministry of Justice, including that regarding complaints.
An enforcement agent making a socially-distanced visit from the doorstep, with appropriate PPE, in a post coronavirus world is not a valid reason to complain. He or she is legally authorised and it is their job to do so. Every enforcement agent follows government guidelines and is trained in coronavirus health and safety measures, such as conducting contactless visits, exercising social distancing and using PPE. There is no reason for anyone to be concerned as they have all also recently received refresher training on working safely and identifying vulnerability.
CIVEA understands that mental health and vulnerability is a particularly important consideration, especially at present, so any situation where this is not being correctly applied should be flagged and investigated immediately. However, all CIVEA members have dedicated welfare teams to deal with the most vulnerable cases and field agents are trained extensively to identify and refer vulnerable people to support services.
As in any industry there are always ways to improve the quality of service and we are continually driving up standards and driving out rogue practice. The low level of complaints can be attributed to the prescriptive regulations; intense levels of monitoring, including video recording and vehicle tracking; strict service level requirements from government creditors; and early resolution of complaints by companies. All of which means that speculative complaints are kept to a minimum and only genuine complaints are registered and investigated.
For more information on enforcement-related complaints processes, please see our FAQ section.
PO Box 745
If you wish to make a complaint against a member of CIVEA, please go to our complaints page and follow the procedure detailed there. Your email will be acknowledged within 5 working days.
CIVEA is unable to discuss complaint matters over the telephone and complaints should be sent in writing. This is to ensure that the details of your complaint are accurately recorded and understood which makes it easier in addressing your complaint thoroughly. Please advise if you have a disability, so that we can make reasonable adjustments.
You can contact us by email, letter or telephone.