The Master of the High Court, who has been a vocal critic of the way banks handle repossession cases, has been told to stop dealing with all debt cases.
From February 4, Edmund Honohan will no longer deal with debt proceedings, which will be assigned directly to High Court judges instead.
The instruction came from President of the High Court Mr Justice Peter Kelly yesterday, just days after it emerged Mr Honohan had been admonished by the Courts Service for smashing partition windows in a courtroom with a hammer to let in air after failing to get a response to complaints about the room being stuffy.
However, it is understood the decision to remove debt cases from his court was being considered for some time in light of Mr Honohan’s repeated criticisms of banks, the existing law, some judges, the Taoiseach, and Government ministers.
The outspoken barrister has also drafted a bill for Fianna Fáil seeking to prevent banks from evicting mortgage defaulters until a property is sold and requiring them to give housing co-operatives the chance to buy the property for the occupant.
It is understood that his actions and views were considered in breach of the principle that judges and officers of the court should appear objective in their deliberations.
Mr Honohan operates in a quasi-judicial manner, describing his job as the “gateway to the High Court”. Cases come before him to clear up procedural matters before they are declared ready to proceed before a judge. He can also finalise some cases without having to refer them to a judge.
He was appointed to the post in 2001 but since the recession, his case list has often been packed with debt recovery applications from banks and he has spoken out regularly in the media and in other forums about what he sees as the unfairness of the current legal provisions to defendants and the behaviour of financial institutions towards them.
Most recently, on RTÉ radio last week, where he defended his actions in breaking the windows, he warned of a potential “tsunami” of evictions on the way if the full number of repossession orders in existence were executed and he said many of the older orders should be cancelled.
Mr Honohan has received plaudits for speaking out but he has clashed with the courts on some of his more unusual decisions. In 2014, the High Court granted an injunction against him, preventing him from sending papers from a case to the Director of Public Prosecutions after he accused a solicitor for AIB bank of perjury. The High Court later ruled he had acted outside his powers in trying to get the DPP to investigate.
Last year, he described as a “sick joke” advice given by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to those wanting to get a mortgage-to-rent solution. Mr Varadkar had advised using the Abhaile service but Mr Honohan dismissed the service as “merely a voucher for €200 worth of legal advice”.
Mr Justice Kelly gave no explanation for his direction. He has powers under the Courts Act to issue ‘practice directions’ deemed necessary to ensure the smooth running of the courts.
The direction does not affect other work carried out by Mr Honohan, whose court will still act as a clearinghouse for non-debt related cases. He also has dozens of cases involving AIB and other financial institutions listed before him today.
Mr Honohan was not directly contactable for comment and he did not reply to messages. David Hall of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation, however, said it was a “bad day for debtors”.
“Those in debt have had few effective people to help them and treat them with compassion and protect their dignity while being pursued by well-represented banks,” said Mr Hall.
“Ed Honohan has been one of the few officials who has spoken the truth about banks’ behaviour and has tried to help those crippled with debt. This is an outrageous move that will remove the plug from the repossession dam.”