There is no denying that everyone has been affected by Covid-19 this year. From hospital to education to retail and entertainment to the justice system. It was whilst sitting down on a Sunday afternoon with my family and my roast dinner and our tradition of watching ‘Can’t Pay? We’ll take it away!’ that I asked myself, how high court enforcement officers were affected by the pandemic?
High Court enforcement officers stand on people’s doorsteps on a daily basis and often have to enter houses. With both lockdown and social distancing, this could be a real issue for these individuals. When you think of the law being affected by Covid, many think of solicitors, barristers, the backlogs in the courts. This is an area that is often forgotten. HCEO's are part of our justice system and regulated by the Ministry Of Justice, so I decided to look into just how much this area of law had been affected by the pandemic.
The effect of the Pandemic
HCEO's normally work for a private company and have a higher degree of power than county court bailiffs, saw their work suspended on the announcement on the first lockdown back in March. Like many other businesses, their work turned to telephones, emails and SMS.
This did cause issues as individuals were much less likely to respond to this method of communication than the HCEO’s standing on the debtor’s doorstep. They also had to weigh up public safety and wellbeing. Many people were being laid off work, going through stressful times. Many firms have a health and wellbeing officer on standby to talk to debtors who may be struggling with finances or with their mental health.
Upon lockdown easing, HCEO’s were able to start returning to duties, but by this time, restrictions had been put in place by the Ministry of justice, which meant there were rules over which writs could be enforced and when possession could go ahead. Since the second lockdown, this has been updated further and restrictions are in place until the 11th January 2021.
A Change in the Law
‘The Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction and Taking Control of Goods) (England) Regulation 2020, has been put in place for the mid-winter season. It came into force on the 17th of November and stays in force until the 11th of January 2021. These regulations “Prohibit attendance by any person at any dwelling, house for the purposes of executing a writ or warrant of possession or of restitution, or to deliver a notice of eviction”
There are some exemptions, however, when these regulations do not apply. To find out more about these exemptions, please read here.
Whilst enforcement officers are now allowed to visit debtor’s private houses for the recovery of money, under the new regulation in force until the New Year, they are unable to enter an individual’s house to remove goods. However, there is nothing stopping them from removing goods from outside the dwelling. To read the full regulation from Public Health England please read here.
A New Approach
Whilst the enforcement officers are now back out and about, there are many new rules and procedures they must now follow. The High Court Enforcement Officers Association has been working hard to put in a plan that will allow the officers to continue in their line of duty, by collecting the money owed to the claimants whilst keeping themselves and the debtors safe.
The new plan entitled ‘A flexible and sympathetic approach to enforcement’ sets out principles the officers must follow. There are six steps to the plan, with the first step being training. It states that any officers must carry out additional training before carrying out any visits. The following steps include collecting data, the use of PPE, identifying vulnerability in debtors, notifying the debtors of the enforcement, social distancing guidelines, how to address visiting a residential address and the visiting of commercial addresses.
So far the plan has been working well. In September, after restrictions were lifted at the end of August, 25,500 visits were made to debtors but there were less than 100 complaints and only four of these related to Covid.
There has been some backlash over the regulations made to evictions on houses by landlords as they feel they are losing out. However, at present these regulations are in place until January and then the policy will be reviewed.
Written By: Victoria-Jayne Scholes
OULS News Editor