Tuesday 17 July 2018

MABS to help homeowners fight eviction battles

ADVICE: MABS chief Michael Culloty offers help with courts
ADVICE: MABS chief Michael Culloty offers help with courts
Allison Bray

Allison Bray

mortgage-holders who fear they will lose their homes to bank repossession when the courts resume will have a new ally to fight their corner this autumn.

After a successful month-long trial period, the free Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) plans to roll out a new nationwide courthouse advice scheme for mortgage-holders in arrears this October.

Since July, staff with the State's non-profit financial counselling service has been attending court repossession hearings alongside members of the State's Insolvency Service to give embattled mortgage-holders support and advice as they fight to keep their homes from the banks - or remain in them for as long as possible.

The pilot project was conducted on a trial basis at courts in counties Dublin, Meath, Wexford, Cavan, Roscommon and Mayo due to the large number of distressed homeowners who are turning up at court with no legal representation or advice as they face a "David and Goliath" battle to save their homes from bank repossession.

"We were struck by how ill-prepared people were," said MABS social policy officer Michael Culloty.

"People really don't know what they're facing. They've often never been in a courtroom before and very often there would be outside organisations with their own agendas that would set themselves up as experts, yet you'd be concerned about the advice they're given," he said.

On top of that, people facing repossession and eviction from their homes - as well as the very real, yet terrifying, prospect of homelessness - are often so stressed that they don't see any way out of the situation and don't bother turning up in court, which only becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when there is no one in court to argue on their behalf, he added.

"I was in court and only about 10pc of 70 cases turned up," he said.

"Yet ignorance isn't bliss is this regard, but the court isn't the fearful place they may think it is."

Although the banks or other lenders will typically have strong legal representation, the banks don't want to see people lose their homes either, although they do want repayment on their loans.

"However, it's still in no one's interest to see families turfed out of their homes and often the bank's representatives are "delighted to see us there to keep people in their homes," he added.

And by engaging with MABS, distressed homeowners can usually buy some time through various options like mortgage-to-rent or capitalisation of arrears.

But the problem of anxious homeowners collectively burying their heads in the sand as their repossession cases are heard in court was illustrated by the Irish Independent last May, when only a dozen respondents attended the Bray District Court on a day in which 120 repossession cases were heard.

Describing it as growing and worrying trend, personal insolvency practitioner, Eric Hendy, said he believes people have simply become disillusioned by the process and believe losing their homes is a fait accompli.

"People are afraid. They've given up and don't want to engage with the banks any more because they're getting nowhere," he said.

Even in the worst-case scenario when the bank is granted a repossession order, simply handing back the keys to the bank isn't necessarily the end of the story, Mr Hendy said.

"Unless they have a formal agreement, the unsecured debt will follow them," he warned.

Meanwhile, as the hearings progressed through the Bray court, many of the respondents who feared they would lose their homes, walked away smiling after being granted adjournments on the repossession orders or making other "deals" with the bank that allowed them to stay in their homes while they try to sort out their arrears.

In one case, a mother secured a six-month adjournment on her adult son's repossession order after learning the bank owed him €26,000 plus interest after it "mis-sold" him controversial payment protection insurance.

That, coupled with the fact that he now had reliable tenants paying rent, was enough to keep the wolves at bay.

And having financial experts like MABS on your side can help homeowners realise there is light at the end of the tunnel, Mr Culotty added.

"It's a massive burden off their shoulders," he said. "Hopefully people will feel there is somewhere to go for help to get the best outcomes and by coming to us, we'll look at all the options."

He urged any homeowner who has a dreaded repossession court date looming to contact MABS prior to their hearing or to look for the MABS banner at the courthouse on the day.

Sunday Independent

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