Can't pay or won't pay? A review of creditor and debtor approaches to the non-payment of bills

Authors: Nicola Dominy, Professor Elaine Kempson
Funded by: Lord Chancellor's Department
Published by: Department for Constitutional Affairs
Publication date: March 2003
ISBN: 1840990503

This research was commissioned as a result of the Report of the First Phase of the Enforcement Review, which identified that,

"... the system is not good at identifying which debtors have the ability to pay and which do not, so debtors may find themselves being pursued relentlessly for a debt that they have no means of paying. Equally, debtors who know the system's weaknesses are able to exploit them to avoid payment".

It was felt that the inability within the civil justice system to distinguish between debtors who won't pay and those who can't pay could potentially diminish the ability of the Review to achieve its stated aims, which were to make enforcement: more straightforward and understandable; capable of delivering higher rates of recovery; fair to both debtors and creditors, and particularly sensitive to those debtors who do not have the resources to pay; and capable of delivering results more quickly.

It was apparent from existing research that there is not a clear-cut distinction between can't and won't pay debtors and that more research was needed to explore this issue. This research project therefore aimed to clarify that picture within the context of debtors appearing in the civil courts, by addressing the following research questions:

In order to address these questions, the research had the following objectives:

The information was gathered using qualitative research techniques. Fieldwork took place from the end of May to the beginning of October 2002, and involved:


Can't pay or won't pay? A review of creditor and debtor approaches to the non-payment of bills [ Full report (PDF, 282kB) | Research summary (PDF, 91kB) ]


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