Alan J. Smith, Chair of the High Court Enforcement Officers Association (HCEOA), looks at the results of its newly published research into the public’s view on enforcement and enforcement agents. He says this shows how important it is that the system is properly funded to meet expectations and that it continues to be both fair and effective in the future.

 

‘Fair and effective enforcement’ has strong support from the public. That’s the headline from our first ever public perception survey looking at how enforcement and enforcement agents are viewed across England and Wales.

The challenge for policymakers and civil servants is to make sure that enforcement is funded properly to meet the expectations of the public. At a time when we’re still awaiting the implementation of a first fee increase in ten years, with the strong likelihood of system and/or fee structure reform to go alongside it, we’re at a critical point for the profession.

The data and the feedback from the research, which involved a representative sample of 2,000 people across England and Wales, is striking.

Strong support for enforcement as part of the judicial system

  • 83% agreed or strongly agreed that fair and effective enforcement is a necessary part of the justice system.
  • Almost 80% of respondents said that people and businesses who are owed money should be able to use a regulated enforcement system to recover debt from those who haven’t paid.
  • 72% thought unpaid debt would increase without fair and effective enforcement.

Fairness to all involved

As well as supporting fair and effective enforcement, an equally significant principle that shone through from the research findings is that fairness to debtors and creditors alike is important to the general public.

Vulnerability considerations, repayment plans and the ability for creditors to reclaim the amount owed in full are all seen as important. 

 

  • 89% think it’s important that there are clear rules and regulations in place to protect vulnerable people and that repayment plans are offered to debtors who can’t afford to pay their debts.
  • 82% think it’s important that the person or business owed money should receive the full amount on their court order.

Confidence in the system can be improved

While most people expressed confidence in ‘the judicial system’ to set, and enforcement agents to follow, the appropriate rules – there was a minority who don’t.

  • 69% of the public agreed there are rules and regulations in place to govern how enforcement agents operate.
  • 61% trust enforcement agents to follow the law while carrying out their work.

Transparency and greater education to dispel misconceptions and bolster public trust in enforcement processes must continue to be part of our mission moving forward.

Today, as a matter of course, High Court Enforcement Officers (HCEOs) follow strict best practice and National Standards to ensure vulnerable people are adequately supported through the enforcement process.

Moving forward, the profession has a key role to play in supporting the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Enforcement Conduct Board (ECB) as they work to shape the future of the profession and ensure that we collectively meet the public’s expectations.

Next steps from government

There are three steps government can take quickly to make this happen:

  • Implement its own recommended 5% increase in enforcement fees. This was proposed in summer last year, and whilst it hardly scratches the surface of rising costs since fees were set in 2014, at the time of writing we’re still waiting for an implementation date for what will be a first fee increase in ten years.
  • Set up and deliver a regular fee review mechanism linked to inflation. The MoJ recognised the need for this last year so we’re hopeful it will be introduced soon.
  • Ensure any further reforms to the enforcement system proposed after last year’s wide-ranging consultation are carefully considered and properly funded. The 5% fee increase addresses a historical challenge, but it doesn’t create a ‘fighting fund’ to tackle new challenges.

We’ve shared our data with both organisations and the enforcement profession is ready and willing to work with government on the proposed reforms.

The good news is that there is agreement around shared outcomes that everyone, including the public, wants i.e. that vulnerable debtors remain properly supported and creditors receive the full amount owed to them.

For more information, or to view the full survey results, please visit https://www.hceoa.org.uk/campaigns/understanding-public-opinion.

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