Fighting home repossessions but winning few friends in court
The Hub battles to keep people in their homes – and annoy judges in the process
Martina Doyle and Byron Jenkins at The Hub Ireland: “There’s no cost until the judge brings the hammer down. That’s why we tell people to keep fighting.” Photograph: Eric Luke
On the wall of the cramped basement offices of The Hub Ireland, someone has made about a dozen marks in black ink. They resemble the notches a prisoner might make on their cell wall to mark off how much time they have served.
Byron Jenkins is proud of the marks. He says they represent cases where his organisation has helped people stay in their homes, at least temporarily, by challenging repossession orders in court.
Some of the victories are the result of simple measures, such as discovering that the bank seeking possession of a family home doesn’t have the correct paperwork. Others are lengthy adjournments achieved by Jenkins and his colleagues by advising homeowners to raise an obscure point of law in court.
“We’ve had over a hundred people walk through that door with a possession order in their hand and they’re still in their houses today,” he says. “The cases are still before the courts, but those people are still in their homes.”
This sums up The Hub’s approach to the law: throw a wrench in the works to delay things and hope the situation changes down the line. Now Jenkins is pursuing legal strategies that he hopes will strip the courts of the power to grant repossessions.
“By putting in an affidavit or some sort of defence, you’re taking the power away from the court,” he says. “The situation is changing hourly, daily. People will be able to stay in their homes because we’re actually questioning the complete jurisdiction of the circuit court.”
Major court victories remain elusive, but this does little to discourage the small band of volunteers running The Hub, none of whom have any legal training.
“What’s victory?” asks volunteer Martina Doyle. “Victory to me is people taking back their life, believing in themselves and fighting their case. We’re keeping children in their homes. That to me is victory.”
Unlike other lay litigant groups, The Hub doesn’t stage courtroom protests or try to perform citizen’s arrest on judges. Doyle says they do things “lawfully, legally and respectfully – we’re not into the screaming and protesting”.
Their tactics have won them few fans in the Four Courts. Most notably, Mr Justice Seamus Noonan, without naming The Hub, criticised the advice it gave to seven of its clients who were using judicial review to challenge the courts’ powers to order home repossessions.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” Noonan said after being told the litigants had received their legal advice from “a friend”. While rejecting a similar case earlier this month, the judge hit out at “shadowy advisers who profess to have legal knowledge, but in fact possess none”.
The comments have not gone unnoticed in The Hub, where Mr Justice Noonan has become something of a bête noire. “We call it the day of the long knives,” says Jenkins, referring to the judge’s rejection of the seven Hub cases in one sitting.
“We absolutely reject his comments,” adds Doyle. “The paperwork was perfect. He doesn’t like lay litigants.”
Lay litigant headaches
Groups such as The Hub have also attracted unfavourable comment from barristers and solicitors. The latest edition of the Bar Review features a lengthy article on the headaches posed by lay litigants and the organisations who advise them.
This doesn’t trouble Jenkins and Doyle, who have little time for the Irish legal profession. With the Maurice McCabe scandal the talk of the office, Doyle is keen to point out the Garda whistleblowers have recruited lawyers from Belfast rather than the Republic.
“That tells you something,” Jenkins says. “Between the Maurice McCabe thing and all the corruption, people are losing faith in the system and in the pillars of Irish society.”
Still, what if the judges and lawyers are right? What if The Hub is just giving false hope and prolonging the pain of people who are going to lose their homes anyway? As the Bar Review article points out, prolonging cases can mean huge additional costs – which will nearly always be borne by the losing side.
“There’s no cost until the judge brings the hammer down,” Doyle says.
“That’s why we tell people to keep fighting. With a lot of people, it’s academic anyway because they’re never going to have that cash. They don’t even have the money for their mortgage, so how can they pay costs?”
One of the organisation’s main aims is to make people less intimidated by the courtroom setting.
“People are totally confused and terrified in court,” says Doyle.
“They’re standing there in a huge arena with people in big black capes around them speaking in a different language and they can’t even hear what the registrar is saying.”
With this in mind, on February 21st, some 40 people crammed into a meeting room in the Teachers’ Club on Parnell Square. There they watched four Hub volunteers roleplay court scenarios, with Doyle clearly enjoying playing the judge. The objective was to show what The Hub says are the right and wrong ways to appear in court as a lay litigant.
“All rise. Turn those phones off! Do you want me to call the guards in here?” Doyle shouted to the giggling audience, many of whom face losing their homes in the repossession court.
The first scenario involved a soft-spoken woman meekly telling Judge Doyle that she was challenging the court’s jurisdiction to take her house. Doyle demanded to know what case law she was citing. The woman couldn’t remember. Case dismissed.
In the next scenario, the same woman spoke confidently and recited the case law perfectly. She questioned the judge at every opportunity and refused to give certain information when asked for it. The bank’s barrister, played by a man in jeans and a T-shirt, acted flummoxed. Doyle granted the woman’s application.
Cue cheers and applause from the audience.