Debtors are being harassed to pay up: coroner

A coroner dealing with an increasing number ofsuicides has warned financial institutions and debt collectors they are breaking the law if they harass a person for debt repayments.

Coroner Paul Morris urged financial bodies to ensure they have policies in place to prevent staff harassing under-pressure debtors.

He raised the issue in light of the huge suicide hike, not only in South Tipperary but nationally in the past four years.

The Clonmel-based solicitor advised people to complain to gardaí and invoke legislation under the 1997 Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act if they feel they are being harassed. There is a need, he said, to “chip away at the awful ruthless culture” where a “kind of merciless Darwinian approach” is taken towards people in financial trouble.

“If a person is being harassed by a financial institution or debt collector they can point out, to whoever is directly contacting them, that he or she is the offender and they are free to make a complaint to the gardaí.”

Mr Morris recommended to people to hire an independent advocate with the necessary skills, such as an accountant or solicitor, to negotiate with the banks and other creditors on their behalf.

The coroner said it was a fact some suicides had been the result of people under financial pressure, caused by the recession.

A total of 18 deaths by suicide was recorded in South Tipperary last year, double the 2009 figure.

Mr Morris acknowledged the recession was a factor over the past four years.

The coroner said he suspects the policies of some financial institutions and debt collection agencies in relation to collecting money owed did not comply with the provisions of the 1997 legislation.

The manner in which financial institutions communicated with a debtor could be the “last straw”, he said, for a person under severe financial pressure and lead them to entertain suicidal thoughts.

Under section 10 of the act, it is an offence to harass a person by persistently communicating with them by any means, including by telephone, in such a way that it intentionally or recklessly seriously interferes with their peace and privacy or causes alarm, distress or harm. Under section 11 of the act, a person who makes a demand for payment of a debt is guilty of an offence if the frequency of their demands is calculated to subject the debtor or a member of their family to alarm, distress or humiliation.

AIB, Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank all insisted they were compliant with regulations under the Central Bank’s code of conduct in dealing with customers.

However, some institutions declined to comment.

Mr Morris said a number of factors contributed to death by suicide.

“I think it’s more the type of society we are living in. There is a very distorted idea of what success is. I think we have to get away from the concept that the person with money is successful when that person may be living a life of desperation.”


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