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Editor’s note: One of the things I learned when we had debt is that ‘no debt is bad enough to kill yourself over it’. And I was tempted, believe me. Still, we often hear the stories of people for whom debt, unemployment, low pay and, generally, feeling ‘caught by the system’ becomes too much and they ‘check out of life’ in the most final way possible. Recently, there was the story of Jerome Rogers: a young man who took his own life having lost all hope. Today, I give you a guest post by Sara Williams who blogs about debt and credit ratings in the UK at Debt Camel. Sara is a debt advisor and a good friend. In this post, she talks us through the conditions that led to Jerome’s suicide.

I’ve been a debt adviser for over ten years – it takes a lot to shock me. But the news story that a 19 year old, with no history of mental health problems, had killed himself because of a debt of two minor traffic penalty charges (PCNs – Penalty Charge Notices) that a bailiff was collecting was horrifying.

You can see Jerome Roger’s story in a BBC docudrama, Killed By My Debt , on iPlayer for the next 6 months.

It’s easy to blame the bailiff for this. The bailiff should not have clamped Jerome’s motor cycle which was necessary for Jerome’s work as a courier – bailiff rules says a bailiff can’t take “the tools of someone’s trade” unless they are worth more than £1,350.  Jerome’s second hand motorcycle has been valued by Honda at only £400. Newlyn, the bailiff firm, later admitted their bailiffs didn’t have a way to check the value of a motorcycle.

But there are other problems that all played a role in Jerome’s story. Here are some of them.

The gig economy

Jerome was self-employed, not guaranteed any amount of work each week. He didn’t get paid for his time or petrol travelling between jobs. He had no rights to sick pay when he was too ill to work. He had to provide his own bike, which meant paying the finance cost and the high insurance costs regularly even if he wasn’t paid. He even had to pay a weekly fee for the “courier pack” to the firm giving him the jobs.  All these left Jerome’s finances in a very precarious state.

There are millions of people in this sort of self-employment or on a zero hours contract. Some like the benefits of flexibility, but most get less work than they want and would prefer to get paid a reasonable, regular amount for a day’s work.

No affordability check on the purchase of the bike

Jerome’s step-father bought him the bike. He didn’t think he would be approved for the credit as he already had two cars on finance and his self-employment income was not good.

The regulator says a lender should check that credit is affordable: that you can make the repayments on time, without undue hardship and without having to borrow any more money. I have looked at affordability in detail in Payday loans- how to get a refund and exactly the same rules apply to other types of borrowing, including vehicle finance.

But this bike finance was approved after no questions were asked about his income or expenses, just a credit check. Actually there may have been some rudimentary questions – completing an income & expenditure form wouldn’t make good television – but vehicle finance is an area where notoriously few checks are made.

This credit was probably unaffordable and should never have been given.

The way the traffic penalties multiplied

The two PCNs were each originally for £65.

Jerome had no savings to call on when he got the first penalty change notice. And £65 that was more than his surplus income (income less the essential work expenses, not including things like food!) the week he got the PCN.

If there had been a way to offer affordable weekly repayments at that £65 stage, Jerome may well have taken them. At £10 a week, the council could have had the ticket paid in full in under two months.

But that isn’t possible. If a PCN isn’t paid in full within 14 days it doubles. To the council that probably sounds like a sensible policy to encourage early payment. But where people do not have enough money to pay the £65, it is a cruel example of how the poor pay more to live in 21st century Britain.

Sending the debts to a bailiff

Bailiff’s fees are very high. £75 for writing a letter asking someone to pay a debt or the bailiff will call after 7 days, then £235 for actually going to someone’s house -so £305 in total. Adding these fees onto small debts turns them into unmanageable ones.

The council sent the debts to the bailiffs as two separate cases, enabling the bailiff to collect two sets of fees, not just one. That is how a couple of debts of £65, plus court costs, ended up at a total of over £1,000.

These fees give bailiffs a huge incentive not to accept a payment plan when someone phones after getting the first letter – if they don’t call at the house, they can’t get that £235 fee. The run around Jerome was given, when the bailiff told him to call the office about a payment plan and they then told him he had to talk to the bailiff, is very typical.

And the bailiff’s behaviour

So, Jerome was already in a very difficult financial position when the bailiff called. Then came the pressure from the bailiff, and the incorrect clamping of his bike, making it impossible for Jerome to earn any money to repay the debt.

The coroner at the inquest said:

I’ve considered the actions of the bailiff sitting outside the house for a prolonged period having not told Jerome the reason he was outside. Could that have been viewed as a form of harassment? Did it increase Jerome’s stress levels? My personal view is sitting outside a person’s house, when you are a bailiff, would be intimidating.

It is a tragedy that Jerome felt he had no way out of his situation.

If he had gone to his local Citizens Advice or phoned National Debtline, information about what a bailiff can and cannot do may have been able to prevent this. But there is more advertising for payday loans and other sorts of high cost credit on television and radio than there is promotion of free debt advice.