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Reality of life in the bailiff business

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Written by: David Clensy | Posted 29 November 2016 13:57

Reality of life in the bailiff business

He has had three guns pulled on him during the course of his working life. He's seen the glisten of countless knives, had numerous baseball bats swung in his direction and been sworn at more times than you or I have had hot dinners.

But Steve Wood takes it all in his stride – as a professional bailiff, it all comes with the territory.

“In fact the worst I've had is to be smacked in the mouth a few times, and you have to expect that," the 56-year-old explains with a smile, as he leads the way through the office of Able Investigations in a secret location in east Bristol. 

The Bristolian has had a taste of an eclectic range of roles in his time. Having left school with no qualifications, he trained and worked for a while as an undertaker and embalmer in his 20s, and went on to work for a spell as a police officer in the Avon and Somerset force.

But both roles grated against his dislike for "doing the same thing day-in day-out", so in the early 1990s he decided to set up on his own as a private investigator.

From divorce cases to missing persons cases, Steve found success sorting out other people's messy lives. But it was in 1995 when one of his clients pointed out to him a shortage of bailiffs, that Steve began to steer his growing team towards enforcement work.

Now he's one of the country's leading experts in the field of enforcement around the removal of travellers and protesters from sites, and he and his team of four professional bailiffs travel the country reacting to landlords who find themselves in crisis over travellers or protesters illegally occupying their land.

“It's a highly professional business," he says. “Unfortunately bailiffs have this reputation of being thugs in leather jackets, and it's just not the case at all. I had to study for a level two NVQ in bailiff law, go through all kinds of checks and screenings and even stand before a district judge and answer a series of test questions from him on the law before I was given a licence to practice.

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“What's more I have to renew the process every couple of years to keep it up to date. It's a highly professional field."

The removal of travellers takes up an increasing amount of his time and Steve says it can be a highly sensitive and volatile situation to walk into.

“There are a lot of misunderstandings about travellers," he says. “If they rock up on to private land you don't need a court order to get them off – though local authorities tend to prefer to go down that route on council land.

“On private land, under common law, a bailiff can give travellers an hour's notice to be moved on. We do three or four a week across the country and it seems to be a growing problem.

“Wherever possible I use my own staff, because I know they are all experts at dealing with travellers. They are all conflict management trained, and handcuffed trained to level three – anyone is allowed to detain a person with handcuffs in order to stop a breach of the peace, to protect themselves or to protect the individual if it is considered that there is a mental health issue and the person is deemed likely to injure themselves."

Sometimes Steve needs to go in “mob handed", as with the clearance of the Metrobus works protesters in Stapleton last year.

“As well as my own guys, we went in with 45 bailiffs – I brought them in from all over the country – and 60 security staff to secure the site once we'd got the protesters off.

“We also had two police officers with us to prevent any breaches of the peace – we always liaise with the police whatever we're doing, but very often with civil cases they will leave it to us unless a situation turns nasty, in which case they will come and get involved."

Steve has become an expert at dealing with difficult situations – like removing dozens of protesters from a site who are determined not to leave.

“When we went into the Stapleton site we had them down tunnels and up trees – you name it, they were doing it. Some were chaining themselves on to things, others were getting mouthy with us as we arrived.

“The way you handle that kind of situation is a bit like a triage nurse dealing with wounded people – you work out who you need to deal with first.

“Clearly the protesters who had chained themselves down weren't going anywhere, so I'd put them to one side to deal with later – and focus on the ones who look likely to either injure themselves or somebody else. It's all about managing the situation."

Steve doesn't pursue parking fine or council tax, but his team do often work on debt recovery.

I ask him if he ever feels sorry for the desperate people's doors he knocks on.

“No," he says. “There are two types of people you deal with in this field – the 'won't pays' who think the world owes them a living and that they can get whatever they want without having to pay for it, then there are the 'can't pays' – people who find themselves in desperate situations because of an unfortunate change in their life – unemployment, bereavement or illness for example.

“Of course, you have more sympathy for the second group, and actually these are always the people that you find you can reason with more easily.

“We're not unreasonable people, and if we can sit down and come up with a reasonable solution to their debt problems – perhaps by agreeing structured payback installments – we would always rather go down that route.

“But where we feel it is necessary, we have every right to enter an unlocked property and take goods belonging to the individuals and change the locks on the doors so they can't re-enter.

“You always leave some basics – a bed, a phone and so on. But otherwise we take everything. Often the goods you take are not going to go anywhere near paying the debt, but it can work well as leverage, especially if you can take a sentimental item that means a lot to the person – even though it may not be worth a lot of money to anyone else.

“For instance, my wife lost her son from a previous marriage as a child of nine and we have a picture he died framed at the top of our stairs. Technically it doesn't have any monetary value, but I'm sure she would move heaven and earth to get her hands on a million pounds if she thought she had to in order to keep that picture.

“It sounds cynical, I know, but sometimes you have to go down that route – it's a leverage technique."

 

 

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