Edmund Honohan: A hero to some, a nuisance to others

‘Eccentric’ Master of High Court has been relieved of debt cases

Yesterday morning, Edmund Honohan gravely told his court he was about to say some words he never thought he'd utter. "I'm still wearing last night's makeup," he announced.

Thursday was a whirlwind for the high-profile Master of the High Court. Midway through it , he learned – after the fact – that the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, was removing debt cases from him.

Then came an appearance on RTÉ's Prime Time – hence the makeup. But if the day's events had shaken him, Mr Honohan betrayed little sign of it yesterday as he took his usual place in the Four Courts building.

He worked his way through his list, composed largely of summary – or debt – judgments, and featuring some of the largest banks and private equity funds in the country.

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AIB, Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank all featured, as did a range of shell companies, behind which stand funds like Goldman Sachs and Cerberus – many of which he has criticised over the last decade.

In good humour, Honohan was patient with inexperienced barristers and polite, dropping remarks (“that’s the same day as Brexit”) here or there as he set new adjournment dates.

But while yesterday’s hearing was tranquil, it has not always been thus. His vocal pronouncements on debt, debtors and financial institutions have polarised the legal profession, sparking debate about the limits of his powers.

A quick scan of headlines offers a flavour of how he runs his court. Striking out a €19 million claim against a businessman this year, he remarked that the bank official “who got the bonus for this dodgy transaction” would not lose his home.

Last year, he accused AIB of putting forward “fake evidence” in support of a case. In 2017, he asked whether the idea that tax loopholes used by “vulture funds” had been closed was “fake news”.

Most recently, of course, he made national headlines after he took a hammer to some windows in his court in an effort to dispel a “fug” he claimed was overheating the room.

Legal sources agreed that he has a track record of closely invigilating the cases brought before him by financial institutions seeking enforcement or repossession.

This has frustrated some of the lawyers who come before him. His investigation of cases brought by banks and funds, one legal source said, was “excessively punctilious”, to put it mildly.

Another said he was “pedantic, not just fastidious” in dealing with cases. Others disagreed, saying that while he could be “eccentric”, his reputation as a “debtor’s friend” is not totally accurate.

His tendency to run his court in a headline-friendly manner has delivered him no shortage of public profile. However, there have been high-profile setbacks, too.

In 2015, the High Court ruled that he had acted outside his powers when he sought to refer a case involving €3 million worth of mortgages to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

Mr Honohan had stated that AIB, the lender concerned, had submitted an “untruthful” affidavit. The High Court found he had no power to refer statements sworn by bank officials to the DPP.

Another case, Ulster Bank v O'Brien, which related to loans totalling €888,000, went all the way up the court hierarchy.

Mr Honohan agreed with the defendant's argument that the bank's evidence was based on hearsay. The High Court disagreed. So, too, did the Supreme Court, finding the evidence to be admissible.

Legal sources often complain of delays in the Master’s Court. Sometimes, a lawyer pointed out, such outcomes leave already hard-pressed debtors with higher costs after the lender goes back to the High Court.

Frustrated banks

Banking sources, who have become frustrated by Mr Honohan, welcomed the decision by the President of the High Court to take some court business away from him.

One said the way in which he ran his court was “unhelpful in terms of supporting the much-needed process of reducing the still-substantial level of non-performing residential mortgages which Irish banks continue to hold”.

Mr Honohan’s activities outside his court and a high-media profile, including a podcast appearance with the failed presidential nomination candidate journalist Gemma O’Doherty brought attention too.

His public pronouncements, and the frequency of them, contrasts with the low-profile style adopted by most figures significant in the daily life of the Four Courts.

Though Honohan’s position as Master of the High Court is not a judicial position, his decision to work with Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness on the latter’s affordable housing and fair mortgages left some legal sources incredulous.

Ross Maguire, a barrister who founded the personal insolvency firm New Beginnings, said that "by his public utterances and his authorship of proposed legislation, the Master could no longer be seen as impartial which, whatever the merits of his views, is a fatal flaw".

However, Honohan has trenchant defenders. Debtor advocate David Hall said that he "has been one of the few officials who have spoken the truth about banks' behaviour and has tried to help those crippled with debt".

Describing Honohan as “a hero”, McGuinness, who chairs the Dáil’s finance committee, said: “All he is trying to do is create a level playing field for everyone.”

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times