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Unpaid fines: Dealing with debt collection via Marston Holdings

When UK courts are pursuing an unpaid fine, they outsource to a debt collection company called Marston Holdings. Unfortunately, we frequently hear of examples where debt collection agents take advantage of debtor uncertainty in order to obtain speedy payment.

If you are contesting or unable to pay a fine, or find yourself being contacted by a Marston representative, it’s important to understand how the company operates. 

The company has a toolkit for its agents that reflects national standards set by the UK Ministry of Justice and provides guidance and formalised processes to handle interactions with debtors.

Knowing the rules that set out what its agents can and can’t do when communicating with debtors, can help you manage what can be a stressful and intimidating experience. 

Stages of enforcement

Marston undertakes collection of unpaid fines in three stages:  

Compliance stage

Compliance begins with the issuance of a Notice of Enforcement, usually, a letter lent via normal post indicating the debt owed and including a demand for payment. Marston agents have to wait seven days (not counting Sundays or Bank Holidays) after receipt of the letter for the debtor to settle the debt. No further action can be taken during this period.

Often Marston will be asked by the court to wait longer than seven days before progressing to the next stage of enforcement and to make more attempts to contact the customer after this time, generally through further letters or by telephone. Marston says it is common for its clients (in this case, The Courts) to stipulate that four letters must be sent during the compliance stage before any further action is taken.

Enforcement Stage

If an outstanding fine is not paid during compliance stage, Marston will progress to what it calls the ‘enforcement’ stage, whereby a debt collection agent will visit the debtor’s residence to either obtain payment or ‘take control’ of items the debtor owns that can be resold as a way to clear the debt. 

Enforcement stage and Controlled Goods Agreements

‘Taking control’ in this case doesn’t necessarily mean removing items. In practice, Marston will usually seek to enter into a controlled goods agreement with the debtor. This involves taking an inventory of the debtor’s property to identify items that could be removed at a later date. Any identified goods stay in the debtor’s possession for a defined period to allow them a final opportunity to pay the outstanding fine.

Sale or Disposal

At this final stage, a Marston agent or agents will visit the debtor’s residence again, this time to remove the goods identified in the controlled goods agreement and transport them for resale.

Additional fees

In addition to the outstanding fine, a debtor may be charged fees designed to cover the costs of enforcing payment via debt collection. These fees are set by statute, and Marston says it is ‘obliged’ to charge them.

Regulations enacted in 2014 set out two fee schedules, one for High Court orders and another for non-High Court orders.

NON-HIGH COURT FEES

  • Compliance fee: £75
  • Enforcement fee: £235 plus 7.5% of the debt value that exceeds £1,500
  • Sale fee (selling at auction): £110 plus 7.5% of the debt value that exceeds £1,500

HIGH COURT FEES

  • Compliance stage: £75
    • 1st enforcement stage: £190 plus 7.5% of the debt value that exceeds £1,000
    • 2nd enforcement stage: £495
  • Sale or disposal stage:
    • £525 plus 7.5% of the debt value that exceeds £1,000

Marston applies these fees according to the stages of enforcement, so they are not based on the number of activities agents undertake at each stage and cannot be calculated in that manner.

How to lodge a complaint

If a debtor is unhappy with their treatment at the hands of Marston Holdings or its agents the company has formalised a three-stage process for handling complaints:

Stage one

The first step is for the debtor to make contact with Marston by email, fax, post or online to make a complaint and explain what has happened.

Stage two

If a debtor isn’t happy with the outcome of stage one, they can ask for their complaint to be reviewed by Marston’s Head of Customer Care. Marston will ask the reasons for disagreeing with the first-stage finding, and for any additional information to support their position.

Stage three

The final stage is an appeal process, through which a complaint may be referred to Marston’s independent Advisory Group, which is chaired by Elizabeth Filkin CBE, former Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Members of the Advisory Group sit outside the company and are not Marston employees.

Other ways to lodge a complaint

Rather than lodge a complaint with Marston, Debtors are free to complain to the courts directly. The debt collection trade associations Civil Enforcement Association (CIVEA) and the High Court Enforcement Officers Association (HCEOA) also have procedures for receiving complaints about member organisations.

Contact details for all the above are listed in Marston enforcement toolkit for its agents.

Has Marston Holdings contacted you regarding an unpaid fine?

Having a debt collection agent on your doorstep looking to inventory or seize your personal property is likely to be upsetting for anyone. It can be a frightening confrontation that leaves them feeling powerless and unable to challenge any demands.

If you’ve been contacted by Marston Holdings in relation to an unpaid court fine, consider taking legal advice. 

  • If your situation hasn’t been properly addressed by collection agents or you’ve been treated badly, the courts may take that into account. 
  • There may be a case for a reduction if you can provide evidence of low income and minimal assets, or even overturning the fine if there are grounds to believe it is unlawful. 

In each of those scenarios, we may be able to help.

As a highly successful firm of criminal defence solicitors, we are experts at resolving such situations. Our advice is free and impartial, and if you wish, one of our fully-qualified solicitors may be able to represent you in court.

If you have a low income or are on benefits, after a successful application for legal aid, we may also be able to represent you free of charge.

For more information, contact us today on 0800 612 7128 (24hr) or visit https://www.cantpaymyfine.co.uk.

Unpaid fines: What to do when bailiffs come calling

Dealing with debt collectors can be a humbling and distressing experience. Some agencies resort to tactics designed to intimidate, harass, or take advantage of your uncertainty in order to obtain speedy payment.

When the courts are trying to collect payment of a fine, they outsource to a company called Marston Holdings. 

While courts have an obligation to pursue unpaid fines, it’s important to understand the rules that Marston and other collection agencies must follow when communicating with debtors, or attempting to take possession of goods in lieu of payment. 

There are things they’re allowed to do, but many other things they aren’t – particularly when dealing with persons deemed vulnerable under Ministry of Justice rules. 

If you can’t pay a fine due to lack of funds and you’re concerned about bailiffs knocking at your door, forewarned is forearmed.

Know the restrictions on debt collection agents

Marston debt collection agents (what we used to call ‘bailiffs’) have a code of conduct the courts expect them to follow, and national standards set by the UK Ministry of Justice that all debt collection agents must abide by.

When a Marston agent encounters a vulnerable situation, the Ministry’s rules demand that they tread lightly and take steps to ensure that vulnerable and socially excluded people are protected.

Debt collection agents have ‘… a duty to contact the creditor and report the circumstances in situations where there is evidence of a potential cause for concern.’ They must also avoid taking action which could lead to accusations of inappropriate behaviour.

Agents must withdraw from domestic premises if the only person present is under the age of 16, or deemed to be vulnerable by the enforcement agent. They must also withdraw without making enquiries if the only persons present are children who appear to be under the age of 12.

Other groups who might be vulnerable under Ministry of Justice rules include:

  • The elderly
  • People with a disability
  • The seriously ill
  • The recently bereaved 
  • Single parent families
  • Pregnant women
  • Unemployed people
  • Anyone with obvious difficulty understanding, speaking or reading English

Debt collection agents are also expected to provide interpretation services (including British Sign Language) when needed, and be able to provide information in large print or Braille for debtors with impaired sight.

What debt collection agents can’t do

In any situation where your property might be seized, the Taking Control of Goods Regulations 2013 sets out items that debt collection agents can’t remove. Typically these are possessions which are essential to employment, health, and the necessities of daily life. 

Items that can’t be seized include:

  • Equipment or other items which are necessary for use by the debtor in their job, business, trade, profession, or field of study (unless the aggregate value of such items exceeds £1,350).
  • Clothing, bedding, furniture, household equipment, white goods required to satisfy the basic domestic needs of the debtor and every member of their household.
  • Items required for medical care or safety.
  • Assistance aids such as dogs and mobility scooters.
  • Goods that are also premises (e.g. caravans) are exempt if they are also a principal home of the debtor, or someone in their care.
  • Goods that the debtor has in their hands are exempt from seizure, if taking control of them is likely to result in physical confrontation.

Where the debt collection agent is attempting to gain access to a debtor’s home, Marston’s own toolkit for its agents says that in general they are ‘…only able to enter or re-enter a property peaceably, and without false pretences, by any door or any usual means by which entry is gained to the property.

That means bailiffs need your permission to enter, and can only access the property via your normal entrances and exits; e.g. through the front or back door, and not by climbing through an unlocked window.

Marston may however apply to the court for an order to force entry, which may be granted in some circumstances.

Is a debt collection agency chasing you for an unpaid fine? 

Having a debt collection agent on your doorstep looking to inventory or seize your personal property is likely to be upsetting for anyone. For vulnerable people it can be a frightening experience that leaves them feeling powerless, and not equipped to challenge any demands.

If you’ve been contacted by Marston Holdings in relation to an unpaid court fine, consider taking legal advice. 

  • If your vulnerable situation hasn’t been properly addressed by collection agents or you feel you’ve been treated badly, the courts may take that into account. 
  • There may be a case for a reduction if you can provide evidence of low income and minimal assets, or even overturning the fine if there are grounds to believe it is unlawful. 

In each of those scenarios we may be able to help.

As a highly successful firm of criminal defence solicitors, we are experts at resolving such situations. Our advice is free and impartial, and if you wish, one of our fully-qualified solicitors may be able to represent you in court.

If you have a low income or are on benefits, after a successful application for legal aid, we may also be able to represent you free of charge.

For more information, contact us today on 0800 612 7128 (24hr) or visit https://www.cantpaymyfine.co.uk.