The origin of the bailiff profession in England and Wales dates back to the 7th Century., although there is evidence that a form of bailiff existed in the Common Celtic Period in Europe (circa 1,000 BC). The first explicit mention is in the Laws of King Ina, who was King of Wessex from AD 670 to 726.
The common surname Bailey is Anglo-French, and the surname Reeves is Old English, both of originated from the occupation of bailiff or steward.
The work of bailiffs called was originally called “distress”, the ancient meaning of which, is to secure goods by locking them in a pound.
When distress was first used – and for centuries afterwards - debts were paid in kind. Although money was in circulation, even the smallest coin was far too valuable to use for everyday business. So, when somebody refused to hand over the goods he owed, it was not unreasonable to seize them. For centuries, distress was undertaken without recourse to a court or any judicial authority, but even after it became commonplace for courts to “order” that a debt was indeed due and payable, responsibility for enforcement remained with the creditor.
Two forms of distress are thought to be particularly ancient and the origin of all that followed. The first is distress damage feasant, which is the ability of a landowner to seize cattle, which have strayed on to his land, and to keep them until the owner has paid for a damage done. The second is a landowner’s right to seize the goods of his tenants until rent arrears are paid. At some stage, the Church began to use distress to enforce payment of tithes. In the 6th Century the Anglo-Saxon kings began to use distress to enforce their own orders and the first law was passed to regulate the use of distress.
One of these laws required that before goods could be seized to pay a debt, the creditor had to first go to court. Broadly speaking, anything that was practiced prior to the reign of Henry II (1133-1169) became Common Law. So commonplace was distress, that the Magna Carta (1215) gave the English barons the right to use distress against the King!
At some stage during the 12th & 13th Centuries, the courts gave themselves extra powers and “execution” (the seizure of goods to enforce a court judgment) emerged as a separate type of enforcement. For this reason, the term “distress & execution” came into use to refer to the work of bailiffs. Towards the end of the 1st Millennium, the Kings of England appointed High Sheriffs to represent their interests in the Counties. These High Sheriffs, in turn, appointed bailiffs, or sheriff’s officers, to enforce the orders made by the King’s courts. In 1601 a new form of seizure was created by statute – statutory distress. Previous laws had regulated how distress was done but this created a new form of tax and, with it, a new form of distress. The tax was essentially a local tax on income raised by parishes from residents in the area in order to help the poor: it later evolved into General Rates, a property tax, to fund local services and the modern version is Council Tax and Business Rate.
An important innovation was that the goods seized could now be sold to satisfy the debt. “Ordinary‟ distress caught up with this innovation when, in 1689, the law was changed to allow goods to be sold in all forms of distress or execution. The most famous legal case known to bailiffs in England & Wales is Semayne’s Case in 1604 because it ended a bailiff’s right to force entry to domestic premises. This was the case in which it was famously said that “an Englishman’s home is his castle”.
However, the case also confirmed a bailiff’s right to force entry to non-domestic premises – that is, commercial properties with no residential rooms. This was later overturned when in 1680, in the case of Poole v Longueville, the judge denied the right to private bailiffs to force entry to any premises. A series of laws passed between 1888-1908 are the only modern reform of distress. They achieved many things but the most noticeable was the requirement for a bailiff enforcing rent arrears to have a [bailiff] certificate issued by a judge.
The oldest surviving Bailiffs Certificate is dated 7 February 1894 . It states: In the County Court of Staffordshire held at West Bromwich. Pursuant to section seven of the Law of Distress Amendment Act 1888, I hereby authorise William Cooper of 25 Oak Road, West Bromwich, Agent, to act as a Bailiff to levy distress for Rent in England & Wales. Signed Judge William Downes Griffith on the 7th of February 1894. William Cooper later went on to become one of the first members of the Certificated Bailiffs Association, which was formed in 1906 and was a forerunner to CIVEA.
Until the late 1970s, bailiff action was relatively uncontroversial and bailiffs, while hardly being loved for their work, were well respected. The general attitude among the population was that if a bailiff knocked on your door, you probably deserved it. A person in debt did not advertise the fact because debt carried a stigma. Today that has all changed.
As credit has become more freely available, so debt has become commonplace and social attitudes towards people in debt have changed. Today there is no stigma or embarrassment to being in debt. A watershed was breached with the highly controversial Community Charge, introduced by the Thatcher Government in Scotland in 1989 and in the rest of the UK the following year. Commonly called the Poll Tax, it was a tax that fell on every citizen and it provoked riots in Scotland and London.
The implementation of the Council Tax placed a statutory obligation on local authorities to collect the tax. The responsibility for recovering unpaid taxes has increasingly fallen to enforcement agents executing liability orders.
Modern enforcement agents support a range of organisations including local authorities, HM Courts and Tribunals Service, National Highways and Transport for London. The recent imposition of low emissions zones in our towns and cities has added an additional category of penalties that can be subject to enforcement for non-payment.
You can read more about civil enforcement reforms in our seminal report Reflection and Collection – the evolution of civil enforcement.
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