A large proportion of the repossession cases which came before a registrar's sitting of the Circuit Court in Tullamore, Co Offaly on Tuesday, were initiated since 2015, when the economy was well into recovery.
The so-called "callover sitting" dealt with more than 120 mortgage debt cases in just over an hour and a half and was presided over by county registrar, Paul Fetherstonhaugh.
Callover sittings decide which cases should go forward to a repossession hearing before a judge, and which should be adjourned to see how matters develop.
KBC Bank, Bank of Ireland, AIB, Start Mortgages, EBS Mortgages, Pepper Finance Corporation, Permanent TSB, Promontoria (Oyster) and Shoreline Residential were among the bank or distressed debt businesses with cases before the court.
The finance companies were represented by solicitors from well-known law firms while the mortgage holders mostly represented themselves or were represented by duty solicitor, Louisa McKeon.
Ms McKeon, a Galway solicitor, was on duty in the court as part of the free Abhaile scheme which supports people with distressed mortgages.
The number of cases in the court system is still very high, Ms McKeon told The Irish Times, after the hearing.
“I would have expected them to be down by now but no, there is a new tranche of people, with new difficulties. We’re still seeing the effects of the recession.”
Working with the publicly-funded Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs), she attends sittings in the courts in Galway, Cavan, Longford, Athlone and Castlebar, as well as Tullamore.
‘At their mercy’
Most of the cases were dealt with in seconds, as often the solicitor representing the finance company asked for an adjournment, the preferred outcome for most debtors.
It was when the application was for the case to go forward for hearing that debate usually occurred, but inevitably the matter was promptly decided by Mr Fethersonhaugh.
Where an effort was being made to pay down the debt he would usually adjourn the case, though if there was little reality of the debt being settled he would send the case forward. In some cases the debtor did not show up and in a very small number of cases, the application was for the case to be struck out.
Outside the courtroom before the session two friends, both public servants, spoke to The Irish Times. Neither women wanted to be identified and both became emotional while telling their stories.
One woman said she and her husband she had been having difficulty making payments to the EBS since her husband got sick about two years ago. She has been trying to negotiate a long-term deal with EBS but it has been proving difficult.
“I’m paying three-quarters of the mortgage but they keep pressing for more. I would like a long-term arrangement but they won’t agree one.”
She finds the process of having to come to court every few months very distressing, she said.
“You are constantly waiting for the next day to come up. You don’t know what they are going to say. You are at their mercy. I’ve been sick. You don’t sleep. Physically and mentally you are not well.”
Her friend said she and her partner built a house in 2007 and got a joint mortgage. They have since separated, her former partner is not paying maintenance, and she is minding the children.
When they separated she left the family home with the children but he didn’t keep up the payments. Eventually he moved out and she moved back home. That was about four years ago and by then substantial arrears had built up.
Although she is not named in the proceedings that have been taken by the EBS, she is “trying to save the family home. I’ve been paying 90 per cent of the mortgage.” She said she wants to move to a mortgage to rent scheme but is finding it difficult to get the EBS to engage.
Lack of engagement
“The stress is unbelievable. You don’t know what you have to do to keep them happy. It’s hard for me to be looking at the kids and thinking that they could be homeless.”
A strong-looking man said he is there because he “fell into a difficult time.” He got a mortgage from the Bank of Ireland in 2004 but lost his job in the building trade in 2008 and stopped paying his mortgage. “Food on the table was the priority, I have children.” He resumed making payments two and a half years ago, he said, when he started working as a taxi driver.
“I’d like them to leave me alone. I’m paying now and if I default again, fair enough, bring me in again, but why keep this up?”
“There are fewer people playing the system now,” said Ms McKeon. The registrar notices people who come repeatedly before the court making similar submissions.
“The biggest hurdle for people who want to engage is the lack of engagement from the banks. That’s really unfair.”
The latest statistics from the Courts Service show there were 3,055 new repossession cases lodged in the Circuit Court last year, and 3,679 in 2016.