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Sunday 18 March 2018

'I was in a dark place and didn't have the energy to fight the banks' - Tracker mortgage scandal

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

"I have the strength now to not let this wrong define me or overcome me with total despair," says Clare Stewart of the tracker mortgage scandal that darkened five years of her life, robbing her family of a sense of security.

With a full-time job in media advertising and two young children, she admits to a sense of disbelief at being caught up in a spiralling financial saga that now looks set to involve around 30,000 bank customers. Financial adviser Padraic Kissane has estimated that those affected are owed "half a billion euro and rising".

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe is to meet the banks' chief executives on Monday, warning that the situation is "unacceptable".

"We are not talking about consumer matters here - we are talking about the lives of citizens that have been badly hurt in too many numbers by the way in which this issue has been dealt with historically, and by how it is now being dealt with," he said.

Financial experts have grown increasingly frustrated by the delay.

A Dublin-based lawyer is hoping to bring a test case to the High Court next year to fight for compensation for those affected.

"It's going to be a David versus Goliath battle with the banks," said Niall Kiernan of Lawlor Partners.

"The Central Bank is not doing much about this so people feel the need to instruct their lawyers."

He acknowledged that with "limitless resources" the banks can afford the most expensive representation - however the case will be decided by the High Court on its merits and Mr Kiernan remains confident that right will prevail over might.

Ulster Bank admitted to Ms Stewart last January that she was one of their customers affected by the tracker mortgage debacle - but she is still waiting for redress.

She and her husband, Stephen, bought their four-bed semi-detached house near Wicklow town in 2006 at the peak of the Celtic Tiger boom. They took out a mortgage with Ulster Bank on a tracker rate of 1.15pc above the ECB rate for the life of the loan.

Six months in, the couple decided to heed the extensive advertising campaigns urging customers to lock in to fixed rates.

"We decided to fix for two years to give us peace of mind," said Ms Stewart.

In August 2008, she miscarried four months into pregnancy and around this time, their fixed-rate period expired. Overnight, their payments jumped substantially by €300.

"We were shocked," she said, explaining that the couple asked the bank what could be done and they were told that trackers were no longer available.

"I was in a very dark place and I didn't have the energy to fight the banks," she said.

"If I am honest I was afraid of them due to the economic climate and the worry of losing our home.

"At this time, I never thought for one moment that Ulster Bank would have deliberately denied us our contractual right to a tracker."

Ms Stewart went on to have a baby in 2009 - but her pregnancy was marred by financial worries.

"I just couldn't enjoy it," she said.

A year later, husband Stephen lost his job amid the recession and having used up their savings, the couple were by now "exhausted," she said.

In 2010, they restructured their repayments and struggled on, though it was intensely stressful.

Ms Stewart has retained letters from Ulster Bank querying the cost of their childcare and even of their Sky TV subscription at €25 - while all the time they were being unknowingly overcharged by the bank to the tune of between €350 and €500 per month.

By now distrustful of the banks, Ms Stewart began to pay the mortgage manually each month - but for a period of 12 months, the bank system failed to pick it up automatically so she received letters within 10 days of each payment demanding payment.

A neighbour urged her to fight Ulster Bank since he had the same mortgage terms and conditions and had managed to get his tracker restored, but again Ms Stewart felt she could not.

In 2012, the couple got back on their feet after Stephen regained employment and were back in a situation where they were making full payments on their mortgage again.

Last year, Ms Stewart had a second child - but says her financial situation caused her to leave a seven-year age gap between them.

"But the silver lining was this time I enjoyed my pregnancy because I was determined to," she said.

"Ulster Bank took a lot of control of my life for a long time and I am angry about that.

"I am thankful that my first girl was too young in 2009 to remember the rows, the stress and many sleepless nights caused by the unnecessary pressure caused by this debacle."

She said she felt "isolated and ashamed" because of their financial situation.

Finally, she got in touch with Mr Kissane who has been battling the banks on the issue of trackers since he first learned of it in 2009.

The bank told her nothing could be done, until a letter arrived last January restoring the couple's tracker mortgage. Their monthly repayments dropped instantly by €500.

Nevertheless, Ms Stewart estimates that the couple made 81 overpayments to the bank. "This is a huge body of work, the banks created it themselves by overcharging customers," said financial adviser Mr Kissane of the scandal.

"They should be trying to sort this out yesterday."

Irish Independent

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