Sailing into choppy waters – Houseboats may be seized and sold in execution of court debts

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Summary: A recent High Court Decision has confirmed that a houseboat can be classed as “goods” within the meaning of the Courts Act 2003 and therefore can be seized and sold by High Court Enforcement Officers in execution of judgment debts.

You should read this article if you have any dealings with the enforcement of judgment debts.

The 20-second summary

Previously there had been uncertainty over whether or not a houseboat could be seized and sold in this way, and that an alternative process, akin to obtaining a charging order over real property would be needed.  However, as no such other procedure exists, the Court held that a Houseboat could be classified as “goods” and seized and sold accordingly.

The judgment is, as yet, unreported.

The Facts

The Claimant (C) had moored his house boat, on the river Thames without the permission of the landowner (D).

In 2012, D obtained an order for possession from the local County Court and with the permission of the Court, engaged High Court Enforcement Officers to move the house boat away from D’s land.  D was awarded costs, but chose not to enforce the costs order at that time.

Some months later, C returned his houseboat to D’s land.

D therefore obtained a Writ of Restitution, allowing High Court Enforcement Officers to remove the house boat once again.  D also obtained a Writ of Fi Fa, (a writ enabling High Court Enforcement Officers to seize goods owned by a debtor to be sold in satisfaction of judgment debt) in respect of the costs orders made against C.

C applied to the High Court for an order that D return the barge to D’s land, permission to appeal the original possession order and an order that the houseboat could not be sold in execution of the Writ of Fi Fa.

D sought an order that C’s application be dismissed, in effect an order that the houseboat could be sold in execution of the writ.

The legal issues to be resolved were twofold:

The Courts Act 2003 sets out that a High Court Enforcement Officer, in execution of a Writ of Fi Fa may seize and sell a debtors “goods” provided that they are not “exempt goods.”

The legal issues to be determined in the application were, therefore:

1                 Can a vessel be classified as ‘Goods’ under the Courts Act 2003?

2                 If a vessel is held to be ‘goods’, does the vessel fall into the category of ‘Exempt  Goods’ under the Courts Act 2003?

Is a houseboat “Goods”?

Goods are not defined in the Courts Act 2003. D argued that the natural meaning of the word should be used and that “goods” means “chattels” which are moveable items of property, distinct from interests in land.

D cited both Chelsea Yacht and Boat Co Ltd v Pope [2000] 1 WLR 1941 and Tristmire Ltd v Mew [2012] 1 WLR 852 in which it was held that a houseboat was a chattel and not an item of real property.

D also cited Cave v Capel [1954] 1 QB 367 and Lloyds and Scottish Finance Ltd v Modern Cars and Caravans (Kingston) Ltd [1966] 1 QB 764. In both cases it was accepted by the courts that a caravan which was occupied as a home could be subject to a writ of fi fa.

It was represented to the Court that the process of enforcing debts in respect of interests in land by way of charging order was of no assistance, as a charging order can only be obtained over land.  In the absence of any alternative procedure, the seizure of the boat by Writ of Fi Fa was the only option available to D.

As the court has held in the context of charging orders in the case of Close Invoice Ltd v Pile [2008] EWHC 1580 (Ch) that the pressing economic importance in enforcing charging orders overrides the impact of the Human Rights Act, it was also argued that the application could not succeed on the basis of C’s claims under that Act.

The judge accepted D’s submissions and held that a vessel is classified as ‘goods’.  The judge found that the line of authorities involving caravans was highly persuasive.

The houseboat was, therefore to be classified as “goods” within the meaning of the Courts Act 2003.

Is a vessel ‘Exempt Goods’?

Exempt Goods within the meaning of the Act fall into two categories; tools of the trade and items necessary of “basic domestic needs”.

The houseboat was clearly not a tool of the trade, and the examples given in the Act for goods necessary of “basic domestic needs” refer to matters such as clothing, bedding etc and not a home or shelter.

The judge agreed that the houseboat was not “Exempt Goods” within the meaning of the Act.

Consequently, unless C is able to make a successful appeal to the Court of Appeal, the houseboat will be sold in execution of the Writ of Fi Fa.

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