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From panic to plan: the move to debt relief

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Debt relief, Debt Relief Order

My name is Kate and I work in a small Citizens Advice Bureau in Bedfordshire. I’m an Authorised Intermediary for Debt Relief Orders, and have worked in the debt advice sector for nearly 13 years.

I previously worked as a systems analyst for John Lewis, designing, building and testing payroll systems. After 15 years of commuting into London, I decided to take a break from full time work to spend more time looking after our young family, and less time commuting and juggling childcare.

A change of career

A few years later I signed up as a volunteer at my local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), going through the very thorough and detailed training that all CAB advisers have to complete before they can start advising clients. After 18 months I took up the post of money adviser, and I've never looked back. It’s quite simply the most rewarding job I’ve ever done!

Options for dealing with your debts

My role as a caseworker is to support our most vulnerable clients, who are often living with long term physical and mental health problems, addictions or bereavement.  Some have complicated benefit, housing or immigration problems, all of which need to be sorted out alongside their debts. This can take a long time as we often need to liaise with other agencies such as creditors, government departments, local authorities, community mental health teams and GPs.

Once any emergencies have been sorted out and we have a clearer picture of a client’s finances, we can explain what options they have for dealing with their debts.  We can help them set up repayment plans with their creditors, but for many clients it would take years to repay their debts, and some would not be able to repay them within their lifetime.

A young couple sat on the floor looking at paperwork

Becoming a Debt Relief Order intermediary

When Debt Relief Orders (DRO) were introduced in 2009, I knew straight away that a lot of our clients could benefit from this option. I applied to become an Approved Intermediary as soon as I could, attended the necessary training, and by the end of April 2009 I had submitted my first DRO application.

Eleven years later, I have submitted nearly 150 DROs and, as a result, over £1.5 million of debts have been written off.

For clients who want to apply for a DRO, I guide them through the process, help them to gather the information we need, put together the application and submit it on their behalf.

Read more about debt and money with Citizens Advice

That makes it sound very simple and straightforward. The reality is that we have to make a lot of detailed checks, such as confirming the value of pension funds, getting car valuations, ordering and reviewing credit reports and so on. Occasionally, I need to advise on the effect on a client’s job or immigration status, or whether they can remain as a trustee for their local charity, or hold Power of Attorney for someone. Pretty much every case brings up an issue I haven’t come across before!

Sometimes we also have to apply to other charities for help in paying the £90 DRO fee, as some of our clients can’t afford to pay it.

Another essential part of my role is to keep up with developments and changes to DROs, which over the years have become more complex to administer. The DRO Unit issues guidance notes and regular bulletins which I can refer to, and if I can’t find the answer I can also ask the Specialist Debt Advice Support unit at Shelter who can help.

Working with the DRO Unit

While the lead up to an application can take time and effort, once the application has been submitted, the Insolvency Service DRO Unit usually approves it within 48 hours.

If I have a question about an application or need to provide additional information which can’t be entered on the DRO application itself, then I can email the DRO Unit directly when I submit the application, and they are always quick to respond.

I also provide updates to the DRO Unit if a client needs help to report a change in their finances during their DRO, for example if their income goes up, or they receive a lump sum of money.

Senior couple use online banking on laptop planning family budget

Impact on clients

The sort of people I’ve helped with DROs over the years has varied enormously. They’ve been aged anywhere between 20 and 80 years old, with debts ranging from £1,500 to just under the current limit of £20,000.  Even though £1,500 may not seem like a large sum, a client can be equally distressed by a single debt of £1,500 as they might be by debts of £20,000.

When I look at the national figures for the amount of debt written off under DROs, the total for the applications I’ve submitted is a tiny portion of the total each year.  For example, in 2018 the Insolvency Service approved £312 million of DROs. The value of the DROs I submitted that year totalled £230,000 - less than 1% of the total.

Having said that, the positive impact on my clients’ lives is incredibly significant. I often describe my job as helping a client move ‘from panic to plan’.  When I first meet a client they are often confused and distressed, embarrassed by their situation, not knowing where to turn. They are often being inundated with messages, letters and phone calls from creditors demanding payment and are scared to answer their own door.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that getting a DRO can be a life changing moment for these clients. When their DRO is approved, a huge weight is lifted from their shoulders. I’ve seen clients punch the air, and heard them cry with relief.  The moment I can tell a client that their DRO has been approved is very rewarding and I will never tire of making that phone call!

Word writing text Debt Relief.

Insolvency Service guidance on getting a Debt Relief Order

Blog: My role in issuing Debt Relief Orders

2019 Press release: £2.3 billion debt relief granted in 10 years of DROs

The Money Advice Service - free and impartial money advice


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  1. Comment by Anthony Dockray posted on

    Great work by Kate and the Insolvemcy Service.

  2. Comment by Dean Beale (CEO, Insolvency Service) posted on

    Hi Kate, I really enjoyed reading your blog about the work you do and the valuable contribution you have personally made to supporting people with problem debt.

    Working in partnership with debt advisors such as yourself, we have granted over 250,000 DROs since it began in 2009, giving many vulnerable people a chance to rebuild their lives.

    I send my thanks to you and all your colleagues who support this work in partnership with our brilliant DRO team.

  3. Comment by Kate posted on

    Thank you Dean.

    I'd also like to thank the brilliant volunteers in our CAB who work so hard with our clients every day. The road to a DRO starts with someone coming in and talking to one of our volunteers - they are the backbone of the service and we couldn't help so many people without them.

  4. Comment by Iain Ramsay posted on

    Very interesting blog about the valuable work done by debt advisers. I am sure that DROs are very helpful for some individuals, but as you indicate processing DROs is quite a complex process, notwithstanding it was intended to be more simple than bankruptcy. You also mention that getting a DRO can be a life changing moment. I do wonder if there is systematic and reliable evidence to demonstrate the longer term effects of DROs on individuals’ finances.

  5. Comment by Kate posted on

    Thank you Iain.

    In terms of the complexity - from an Authorised Intermediary's (AI's) point of view, there can certainly be a lot of detailed work in the run up to an application. AIs are trained and monitored to ensure they have the skills and experience to guide debtors through the process, and the guidance we work with has evolved and changed over the years, to reflect changes to legislation such as the Pensions Scheme Act 2015.

    For the Insolvency Service, the process of administering DROs is much more straightforward than bankruptcy. This is because DRO applicants don't have sufficient assets or surplus income to make any realistic contribution towards their debts. In contrast, those declared bankrupt may be required to make payments for up to three years, and/or surrender assets to be sold, for the benefit of creditors - all of which is administered via the Insolvency Service.

    I don't know of any research into the specific effects of DROs on individuals' finances, but the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute has done extensive research on the links between debt and mental health, as have Citizens Advice on the impact of debt advice. And following a call for evidence issued by the government in 2014 (5 years after the DROs were introduced) Jo Swinson (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for BIS) said:

    "The responses to both the call for evidence and the survey of users showed that debt relief orders are thought to be working well and have provided an important additional route for debt relief for vulnerable people, with benefits for mental health and family relationships as well as allowing a fresh financial start."

  6. Comment by Iain Ramsay posted on

    Thank you Kate.

    As you indicate the primary processing costs of a DRO are borne by the debt advice agencies not the Insolvency Service, but the DRO fees do not cover the debt adviser costs. It looks from a public policy perspective as if the Insolvency Service has managed to transfer the costs of DROs to the debt advice sector (the ‘partnership’).
    Given the effects of austerity on many low income debtors, the policy question is whether the DRO is simply a band-aid on continuing problems of individuals with limited and insecure income. Whether this is the case obviously requires longitudinal research on DROs. If you wish a longer explanation of my response see

  7. Comment by Theresa Aspinall posted on

    Will it be likely that the maximum debt permitted currently in a DRO, £20,000 be increased post Covid19?

    Also how long will any delay be for Debt Relief Orders and Bankruptcy?

    I know the answers may only be speculation right now but any information will be useful.

  8. Comment by Liz Thomas (Adjudicator & DRO Senior Leader) posted on

    Hi Theresa, thank you for the message. Our DRO and Adjudicator teams currently determine 98% of DRO and bankruptcy applications within 2 working days of receipt and we do not expect this to change. While government has no current plans to review the DRO thresholds, we are conscious of the impact of COVID-19 on households’ finances and will continue to monitor the situation as a whole.

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