Friday 18 October 2019

'Pumping people into homelessness' is the fault of the State and Central Bank - not county registrars

Master of the High Court, Edmund Honohan
Master of the High Court, Edmund Honohan
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

The Master of the High Court, Edmund Honohan, takes no prisoners in motions before him concerning defendants in mortgage arrears - any advocate acting on behalf of the bank must be able to exhibit every email, letter and phone-call to the defendant. There is zero tolerance for financial institutions in his court.

This week, Mr Honohan has publicly decried, in print and on radio, county registrars in the Circuit Court for their approach to home repossession orders. In a newspaper interview, rather than use the neutral 'their' when referring to county registrars, he referred to 'her' and 'she', eliminating the Limerick, Kerry and Waterford county registrars. Coincidentally, the Circuit Courts in Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Wicklow, Wexford and Galway employ female county registrars.

Although, in Limerick Courthouse last May, the county registrar, Pat Wallace, was jeered out of the court room while gardaí attempted to stall a dramatic protest, as the Anti-Eviction Taskforce took over the judge's seat and jury box. It was a day when 169 repossessions were listed.

In his interview with the 'Irish Times' this week, Master Honohan said: "So we have a county registrar sitting in wherever...and she is now an agent of the EU. She is obliged, of her own motion, i.e. without the defendant present, to look at the mortgage contract and see if it's fair. Does she have the skills to do that? No. Is there any case law to help her? No. Does she have any idea what she is doing? No.

"So what is happening is she sees there is no defendant in court and makes the order."

In many cases, the defendant is not present in court because they have voluntarily abandoned their property. If you wanted to keep the roof over your head, why would you not turn up in court to plead your case? Would you even let it get that far? It has been well established that many who went into mortgage arrears made no repayments for three to five years. That is just head in the sand.

County registrars can come across as tetchy and intolerant, due to the volume of cases they have to get through; they demand that the advocate has all papers in order and in court, otherwise it is a waste of court time and a frustration of the justice system. Quite often, it is the lenders' records that are askew.

In repossession cases it is standard that they adjourn the case for three to six months or strike out most of them. Even where an order is granted for repossession, the registrar will put a stay of execution on the order for up to nine months, to allow the borrower a chance to resume or restructure repayments.

County registrars are facing the fallout of mortgage arrears going back several years, due to negative equity, a depressed property market and high unemployment, but when borrowers actually turn up in court, they listen carefully and consider their diverse family crises, separations, custody battles or spousal manipulation of the family home.

It certainly would not appear that with a flick of their pen they are, "pumping people into homelessness" as Mr Honohan suggested.

If the State had taken a better economic view, instead of providing €15m per month in rent supplement to private landlords (who inevitably evict their tenants), it could have aided people to stay in their homes and taken equity in their property.

In the buy-to-let debacles, where the tenant has become homeless due to vulture funds taking over the property from the amateur investor, the State should have stepped in to purchase the debt and have the local authority act as landlord.

These solutions would have taken time to legislate, the very time when politicians were absorbed with their next election, and forced austerity on the nation while disbursing our taxes into social welfare and an untenable emergency accommodation crisis, providing hotels with income that they no longer want.

According to the Central Bank's latest figures, between July and September 2016 there were 1,210 proceedings to enforce debt/security on a principal dwelling house mortgage.

Lenders had 1,678 properties in their possession last July. A further 421 were taken into possession during the third quarter, 141 on foot of a court order and the remaining voluntarily surrendered or abandoned. Banks sold off 400, leaving them with 1,698 principal dwelling houses at the end of September 2016. That's 1,700 family homes that were available.

During the same period, rent receivers were appointed to the buy-to-let amateur landlord properties, bringing that stock with rent receivers up to 6,051 properties. By the end of September 2016, the banks had 631 buy-to-let properties in their possession.

The lack of joined-up thinking to which Master Honohan refers, appears to me to be between the Central Bank (of which his brother was governor from September 2009 to November 2015) and the Government.

If lending institutions are signing up borrowers to unfair mortgage contract terms, this is an issue for the Central Bank, the Financial Regulator and the Department of Finance -rather than hitting out at country registrars deluged with the fallout of the malfunction of the boom-to-bust economy and accusing them of ignorance of EU law.

To blame county registrars for the homelessness problem is unjust and to pick on female county registrars and suggest they are ignorant of EU law, is somewhat biased, to say the least.

The figures in the last five years for repossessions or, let's call them what they are, evictions, means that we can never again look back in disgust at the 19th-century landlords during the Famine, because our own 'landlord class' has been far worse.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss