Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Students & enforcement

At the start of the week I attended the annual conference of NASMA (National Association of Student Money Advisers) in Solihull and gave a presentation on the 'new' bailiff law.  The audience had its particular perspective and preoccupations, but a number of themes were significant:

  • use of HCEOs by colleges- there has been a notable increase in educational institutions pursuing students (or former students) through the county court and then transferring their CCJs to the High Court for enforcement.  Grants, fees and similar are now pursued with significantly higher fees added against individuals who will frequently have scant assets or income.  For instance, I once assisted a student who had had to drop out of her course  because she got pregnant.  Despite being a single parent on Income Support in a council flat, her previous college chose to send an HCEO to chase her.  What possible point was there to that?  Would he take the cot or the milk bottle steriliser?  Shame on the college...
  • rights of entry- as may be imagined, enforcement agents can face some severe problems accessing student accommodation when it is in halls of residence and purpose built blocks and general issues of access to private land can often serve to protect students from taking control of goods.  Likewise in the traditional shared house, locked rooms are likely to be a further obstacle even if it is possible to get through the front door of the house.
  • third party goods- ownership of goods is going to be a second major hurdle or source of contention.  In halls much of the property will belong to the college; the same will be the case in rented houses, coupled with arguments over items whose use is shared with other house mates but which belong to someone else.  Questions over property at parental homes (combined with the question as to whether they are any longer the 'usual' residence of the student debtor) are likely to generate contention.  Further disputes may arise for mature students who are in relationships and have complex questions of property with their partners/ spouses.
  • exempt goods- even were much of the furnishing of student accommodation the student's, it would very likely be protected as exempted household necessities.  Of all groups, students are perhaps most noticeable for their gain of specific protection for items needed for study under the 2013 Taking Control of Goods regulations.  Equipment and books needed for education or study are protected from being taken into control provided that their aggregate value does not exceed £1350 (reg.4).  Accordingly, a student's laptop, printer and other hardware (the key tools of many courses these days and the repository of essays as well as access route to online library resources) may well be protected.  In the context of the issues listed above, this was definitely something to welcome.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Where are we now?

Two years and two months into the reformed regime of enforcement law, how has the landscape changed?  How radically different is enforcement in 2016 to bailiff action in March 2014?

It is a mixed picture.  The major source of complaint before (it is safe to say) was fees.  The new fee scale, by being more remunerative at an early stage and by eliminating much of the scope for disputed interpretation, has by and large eradicated contention.  For all parties, this must be a welcome improvement- and a considerable saving of time and resources.

Equally, by front loading fees and discouraging removals, the new procedure has probably further reduced the already low numbers of disposals of goods, which must again benefit debtors and creditors.

On the downside, many of the old causes of dissension remain: arguments continue over the classification of exempted and third party goods, over the rights of entry, over the valuation of assets and over the treatment of 'vulnerable' debtors.  There are still some problems of interpretation and application linked to fees- most notably the question of VAT.  The majority of the issues just listed concern the proper manner of taking control of goods, and accordingly are still a major reason for complaints and discontent.  As most of these questions are not new, and as most of these arguments simply perpetuate arguments from before the law was reformed, it may be suggested that we still await a fundamental reform in approaches to enforcement law.