Tuesday 16 July 2019

'Court president should explain why he took debt cases from me' - says Master of High Court

Master of the High Court Edmund Honohan. Picture: David Conachy
Master of the High Court Edmund Honohan. Picture: David Conachy
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The Master of the High Court has strongly criticised the senior judge who decided he should no longer deal with debt cases.

Edmund Honohan, a frequent critic of financial institutions, challenged the President of the High Court to explain the move.

"He should really come out and say why. But he won't because he feels probably it is not his function as a judge. He just made a decision and that is it," said Mr Honohan.

In an interview with the Irish Independent, Mr Honohan said Mr Justice Peter Kelly's decision to remove debt cases from the Master's court could lead to debtors being "steamrollered" as inexperienced judges may be more accepting of affidavits filed by banks than he would be.

Mr Justice Kelly, one of the country's most respected and experienced judges, has not publicly explained his decision and Mr Honohan said there had been no communication between them since the practice direction was issued on January 23.

Since last Monday, all motions seeking liberty to enter a final judgment in summary summons proceedings must go before a High Court judge rather than the Master.

The decision has proved controversial and prompted a demonstration outside the Four Courts on Monday.

As of yesterday, more than 4,300 people had signed an online petition seeking the return of debt cases to the Master.

In the interview, Mr Honohan was also heavily critical of cuts to legal aid, saying the overriding agenda of the Government was not due process, but saving money.

Although not a judge, Mr Honohan is a senior counsel with a quasi-judicial role.

In contested cases he ensures correct procedures are followed and paperwork is in order before sending a matter on to the High Court.

He can also deal with applications for judgments in uncontested cases.

However, he has been criticised by a number of judges, including Mr Justice Kelly, for acting outside his powers by dismissing summonses.

Mr Honohan said he had been complaining for many years that procedures relating to motions for final judgment were "unfair". Among his concerns are the court examines written evidence on affidavit and hears "no live evidence".

He argues that while lawyers are familiar with the procedures, lay litigants are not and their affidavits are usually inadequate.

Mr Honohan claims that after he raised the issue in 2011, a High Court judge, who he did not name, warned the Irish Human Rights Commission against supporting him.

"They were told Honohan is a nutter," he said.

Mr Honohan said some affidavits from banks were "really offensive to my eye" as they "really seek to portray a defendant as misleading the court, a charlatan".

However, he denies being biased against financial institutions. "All I am doing is applying the rules across the board," he said.

Although "not as distressed and shocked as some people seem to think", he admitted being "quite annoyed" by Mr Justice Kelly's decision.

"What I am doing, in the absence of proper legal aid, is attempting to act in a Christian manner to defendants who want to know what they should do next. I ask them what their story is and I say: 'This is how you deal with it.'"

He now fears defendants might not get the same "care and attention" from a judge.

While he has not spoken with Mr Justice Kelly, he believes the decision may have been prompted by two recent cases. In one matter last month he struck out a €19m claim by Nama for judgment against a businessman, finding it time barred.

Standing over the decision, Mr Honohan said what had been "lost in the welter of annoyance from Nama" was a "missing piece" in the special endorsement of claim.

The second case was a decision last October where he criticised what he termed Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan's "facile" response to calls from legal advice charity FLAC for a legislative amendment to ensure legal aid is available for families facing repossession of their homes.

Mr Flanagan had responded that if Abhaile, the service aimed at finding solutions for mortgage holders in arrears, required improvement, he would consider it.

"I challenged the minister to explain how he expects a litigant without representation to navigate his way through the issues, procedures and law," said Mr Honohan.

There is no suggestion Mr Flanagan influenced the decision to remove debt cases from the Master's court.

Mr Honohan's disenchantment with the President of the High Court extends to another issue - his exclusion from a group, chaired by Mr Justice Kelly, which is conducting a major review of the administration of civil justice.

"The reason I'm not [on it] is probably because I have been giving out," he said.

Usually new rules of court are signed off by the justice minister, but Mr Honohan believes whatever the review group comes up with should also be scrutinised by the Oireachtas Justice Committee.

Irish Independent

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