‘Decent people brought to court like criminals’

Troubled middle Ireland crowded into Courtroom 1 at Limerick’s County Courthouse yesterday.

‘Decent people brought to court like criminals’

It is a setting familiar to Limerick’s most notorious figures, most of whom have passed through on their way to long terms in prison.

Yesterday, decent folk sat nervously in the public gallery, waiting to find out if they would have a roof over their heads for much longer.

The 219 home repossession files were stacked in nine grim pillars in front of chief registrar, Gerry McCaigue.

Each contained the narrative of post-Celtic Tiger legacies.

Lined up against them: Permanent TSB with 57 repossession cases; EBS with 46; AIB 35; Ulster Bank 27; Bank of Ireland 14; KBC 12; and the remainder divided among an assortment of mortgage companies.

As sad story followed sad story, what became clear is that this is not just a financial nightmare, but one which is taking a terrible toll on marriages and parenthood.

One case involved Ger Lonergan from Cappamore, Co Limerick. Mr Longergan, 51, was diagnosed with cancer three months ago and is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. He is receiving disability payments and lives with his wife Noreen.

They have two daughters, aged 22 and 19, who are at college in Limerick and Cork. In 1995, Ger took out a mortgage for IR£33,500 against his old family home to pay off debts. He had reduced the debt to Permanent TSB to €3,600 by 2007. However, due to unemployment he was unable to keep up payments and now finds himself owing €32,000 in arrears and interest payments.

Mr Lonergan said: “Al Capone would be like a saint compared to the people I have to deal with. They now want to repossess my house. I offered them 10% as I can’t pay any more, but they said no.”His case was adjourned to May 8 for a financial statement.

Another case involved a separated couple with a child aged 12. EBS sought repossession of the family home.

Presiding County Registrar Pat Wallace was told that arrears on the property mortgage amounted to €57,000, leaving an overall outstanding balance of €113,873 on the mortgage.

The couple’s solicitor said they were prepared to continue paying €550 a month, but the bank solicitor said they wanted the full €1,200 monthly payments adhered to. Mr Wallace suggested the couple consult with PIP, the property insolvency service.

The solicitor for the couple agreed and the matter was adjourned to May 8.

One mother of five young children broke down in tears as she explained her situation to the county registrar.

Springboard Mortgages sought repossession of her home, in a village 15km from the city.

A solicitor for the mortgage company said the overall debt stood at just over €401,000. Arrears now amounted to €72,000 and the last payment made was €50 in January 2012.

The young mother told how her husband had left her and their children six years ago. She cried as she told how her husband does not give her or the children support.

Asked what she proposed to do, she replied: “I will just have to move out. I will have to rent if I can find a place.”

Mr Wallace said he would give her an opportunity to get her affairs in order and adjourned the application for repossession until May 8.

Another case on the long list involved a couple who have also separated.

Their home, valued at €160,000, was now up for sale.

Their €146,000 mortgage was €36,000 in arrears. The case was adjourned to July 3, to allow the sale to proceed.

The tale of woe continued, with the next defendant informing the court she wished to hand back the keys of her house, and agreed to a voluntary surrender.

One of the biggest debts involved arrears of more than €500,000. Mr Wallace was told the husband had left the country and now lives in Qatar, leaving behind his wife and young child.

She is now trying to hold on to the house and divorce proceedings have started. The last monthly mortgage payment of just over €2,100 was paid three years ago.

On the application of the woman’s solicitor, the case was put back to May 8.

Solicitor Ger O’Neill represented one couple, a public servant and his wife.

The mother of teenage children suffered a nervous breakdown recently.

Standing in the court hallway, Mr O’Neill told me: “They have agreed to pay two-thirds of the full mortgage, but the bank want the full monthly payments.

“These are decent people being brought here to court like criminals. Due to the woman’s illness, I asked the bank to stop writing and phoning them directly and to communicate through me. But this was not done.

“The lending institutions seem to be acting in a soulless manner and people are just numbers on a file. My clients are a fine couple with children in secondary school trying to do their best and meet their commitments. And this is where they find themselves.”

Fianna Fáil politicians Willie O’Dea and Niall Collins sat through the proceedings.

Mr Collins said: “The banks are very robust and trying to break down people who have outstanding mortgages. It seems the banks want to engineer repossessions, rather than hammer out deals, because with repossession they can recover the full amount rather than take some loss and negotiate a write-down.

“The Government needs to remove the bank veto regarding the negotiating process. At present if the bank does not agree, there is no negotiation. The Government needs to establish on a statutory basis, an independent debt settlement office.”

After the proceedings, court caretaker Ollie McCarthy had to get a trolley to return all but two of the 219 files to the clerks’ offices.

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