'Seize, sit back and see who comes out of the woodwork'
Busted property developers, rogue solicitors and anyone else who fails to honour commitments on borrowings are in the firing line for a visit from the Sheriff. By Siobhan Creaton
Dublin City's Sheriff doesn't carry out death sentences or round up a posse to defend his bailiwick anymore, but Brendan Walsh is a powerful figure you don't want to see on your doorstep.
Mr Walsh's main job is to collect debts and he has some serious powers to make you pay what you owe. Broke property developer, Bernard McNamara, knows what it's like when the Sheriff calls.
Last year he was forced to let Mr Walsh and his staff wander around his palatial home and take his valuable art collection off the walls.
They carted away the paintings together with other valuable items to be sold at auction to settle a €2.24m debt to businessmen Gary Smith and Ivor Dougan.
Another struggling developer, Paddy Kelly, also had a high profile brush with the Sheriff when his officials seized his 7-series BMW from outside his home as part of ACC Bank's efforts to collect €350m he owes.
The car, which legally belonged to Mr Kelly's wife was subsequently returned.
Mr Walsh has also seized rogue solicitor, Micheal Lynn's wine collection and other items from his home that could be sold to repay some of his debts.
"I don't seize goods very often," he says. "The threat that I can is usually enough to sort things out. Once the letter goes out, they know I am serious."
Mr Walsh, who won't discuss these cases, some of which are still ongoing, says it would be his decision for example to seize art or other goods that can be sold to pay off debtors.
"I work on a percentage, which is known as 'poundage' so if I seize a painting that is worth €50,000 and can sell it at auction for that amount, I collect 2.5pc of the sale price which goes towards paying the wages in the Sheriff's office," he explains. He operates on an equal basis, he says of "first in is first paid".
Situations where a wife or husband or another third party come forward to claim back property that has been seized is a common enough occurrence.
His motto is that the Sheriff seizes the goods first and deals with any problems that arise later.
"We seize and sit back and see who comes out of the woodwork. If they show they have a claim we will give them the stuff back," he explains.
He can refer the matter to a judge where a dispute over the ownership can't be easily resolved although he says this rarely happens because of the expense.
The high profile seizures reflect a steady rise in the number of people who are owed money moving to enforce court judgments to collect their debts but mostly the Sheriff collects money owed to the Revenue.
"The ratio of Revenue to civil work has altered in the last three years as more banks and building societies have started chasing people," he says.
Since his appointment in 1995 Mr Walsh is also called on to carry out evictions in the Dublin city area, a task he says he doesn't enjoy.
"Evictions were the thing I dreaded when I started but I have never had one that troubled my conscience," he says.
"I felt very sorry for some of the people, particularly a woman who had 20 years worth of newspapers in a rat-infested flat who was evicted because she was a health hazard. I felt bad about that."
Luckily he doesn't evict people on a regular basis. "The number of evictions is down and most are not financially related.
"In a lot of cases they arise where the local authority wants to get people out of corporation flats or houses because of dealing drugs or other behaviour that has triggered complaints from other residents. It is a last resort but we do it and it can be rough," he says.
"You could be facing a guy with a hatchet or a needle in his hand, for example. If we do encounter an unexpected turn of events we back off and call the gardai. We will usually have an idea if there is going to be trouble."
In one case, Mr Walsh and his officials were threatened by a group from an illegal terrorist organisation when it arrived to carry out an eviction.
"A guy had boarded himself into a local authority house and when we arrived a gang of fellas were sitting outside in a van playing poker with the doors open.
"We backed off and the next day at first light returned with a sergeant and eight gardai and took an angle grinder to the door. After half an hour he came out," he recalls. "We get one bite of the cherry and we have got to do it right."
Despite the rise in people who find themselves in negative equity as a result of the property crash and the surge in unemployment that has put people under pressure to pay the mortgage, Mr Walsh hasn't seen a significant increase in the number of banks or building societies carrying out evictions.
A code of conduct imposed on the financial institutions that gives distressed mortgage holders a year's breathing space to sort out repayment difficulties has helped to suppress a raft of eviction orders reaching the courts, he says.
With regular calls for some form of debt forgiveness to release people from debts they will never realistically be able to repay, Mr Walsh says there is a danger that ordinary hardworking people who are themselves trying to collect money they are owed are being forgotten in this debate.
"People tend to take the view that only the banks suffer but everyone who is owed money suffers. Tradesmen, small builders, architects and professionals have been caught by the big guys.
"There is much more there for people to worry about. They are people with wives and children who have lost money. They are not like bankers who can still get a bonus," he says.
The Law Reform Commission has been reviewing reforms to the laws governing indebtedness and looking at areas such as bankruptcy to come up with pragmatic solutions for those facing financial ruin.
Mr Walsh has taken a dim view of some of the proposals and has made his views known to the Commission.
"The proposed reforms are very debtor friendly and I find this to be unfair," he explains. "Today's creditor is tomorrow's debtor. When a big builder goes out of operation this affects ordinary hardworking people and small businesses and they are often overlooked."